The Saluki football team can no longer make the playoffs or win the Missouri Valley Football Conference, but a home win Saturday over Western Illinois University would give the team its first winning season in three years.
To break .500 for the first time since 2009, SIU (5-5, 4-3) must defeat a Leatherneck team that has lost five straight games by a total of 140 points. Western Illinois (3-7,1-6) has scored eight offensive touchdowns this season, equal to the number of touchdowns the Saluki defense and special teams have accounted for. However, coach Dale Lennon said the team cannot get caught up in the statistics.
“The mental preparation is as important as the physical preparation,” he said. “We just have to keep the focus on us, and that’s the constant message that we give each week to the team. You can’t look at records. You can’t look at stats.”
It is difficult to single out a star player on the Western Illinois roster, as many of the skills positions are performed by multiple players. The Leathernecks have started three players at the quarterback position and feature a pair of running backs — Nikko Watson and Caulton Ray — who have each carried the ball more than 150 times on the year. The lack of a team standout has limited Western’s success offensively, as the team ranks last in the MVFC in total offense at 227.8 yards per game.
Senior defensive end Eze Obiora said he believes the defense can have some success Saturday.
“I don’t know if we can talk about a shutout, but I think we’re going to do what we’ve done all season, which is go in on defense and dominate,” he said. “(The defense) has scored in every game since Missouri State, and we plan to do that again.”
Senior outside linebacker Jayson DiManche has been a defensive leader this season and said the Salukis’ motivation should be to take pride in themselves and the team to put a positive effort on the field. DiManche has 35 tackles for loss in his career, fifth most in SIU history.
With only five wins to show for a season that is a game away from completion, Obiora said the Salukis are frustrated with their performance thus far, but that passion can be used to spur the team toward a standout performance in the finale.
“We just have to take out all of our frustration on the other team and absolutely dominate them,” he said. “That’s the only way we can be happy.”
The year may not have gone as the team had hoped, but Obiora said his fellow seniors and the rest of the team are ready to end the season right.
“I think it is about to be a good day because a lot of us are going to play mad, and that’s when we play our best,” he said. “It’s going to be the last time this team plays together as a group of individuals. It’s going to be something special.”
The football team kicks off its finale at 2 p.m. Saturday.