What a difference a year makes. Last year, SIU was 2-9 and had only won one game in the MVFC. They were blasted 65-17 in their last game by tomorrow's opponent, North Dakota State University.
This season, the Dawgs are 7-4 and 5-2 in league after blasting hapless WIU 45-21 last Saturday in Macomb. But can they push the maroon-colored reset button and get over the hump of beating the powerhouse Bison?
The Bison really haven't been challenged by anyone except fellow top 10 MVFC team South Dakota State University (23-16).
SIU was beaten by the SDSU Jackrabbits 28-10, but that was six weeks ago. In the last month or so, SIU has rattled off five Valley wins, averaging 37 points per game and only giving up 17 per contest. In fact, although SIU's offense has put up some big numbers, SIU head coach Nick Hill believes the origin of the team's turnaround has been on the other side of the ball.
"I can't say enough about our defense this year," Hill said. "This is one of the best defenses in FCS. They always give our offense a chance to win games."
That characteristic was again shown in last Saturday's 45-21 win. True, SIU did eventually give up 21 points to WIU, but it was the Saluki defense that held the WIU offense down when the Dawgs' offense sputtered in the first half of play.
SIU only led the Leathernecks by three points at half (10-7 SIU at half). Up to that point, the Dawgs' offense garnered some yards, but it consistently did things to sputter out in the Necks' red zone. SIU did score twice in the first half. One score was a 13-yard run by senior running back D.J. Davis, and the other a 45-yard field goal by Nico Gualdoni.
Davis was magnificent, gaining 208 yards (a career high) and scoring two touchdowns in the game, but the Dawgs' offense really only started revving it's engines when freshman star Javon Williams Jr. was put into the mix in the second half.
Williams was just too much for the tiring Necks. The WIU defense was on the field for almost 41 minutes as Williams and Davis helped the revived Saluki offense possess the ball most of the second half.
Williams ran for three touchdowns and 150 yards plus throwing for another 48 yards on two completed passes. He and Davis had four "explosive plays" (over 15 yards) in the last 30 minutes of play.
But in one series, Williams came up with consecutive explosive runs (24- and 28-yard runs) that helped lead SIU to a 38-14 lead after the Necks had cut the SIU margin to 17 (31-14) early in the fourth quarter.
Williams also completed a 16-yard pass to SIU tight end Nigel Kilby that eventually led to a two-yard scoring run by Williams. Yes, fans, Williams was the football grease that freed the Saluki offense's gears -- again.
Tomorrow, Hill and fans will see how far the Dawgs have really progressed in the last 12 months. In order to be competitive with the Bison, SIU's defense must step up and stop NDSU's potent running attack. That will be a tough task, but SDSU did a good job in their loss to the Bison.
But even if SIU gets beat tomorrow, they still have a good chance to be picked for the FCS playoffs given the tough league they play in and their record in the last six games. We'll see if the playoff committee agrees next Sunday when the FCS playoff brackets are announced.