The Salukis take the field Saturday for their home opener against Southeast Missouri State, a game that coach Dale Lennon said has taken on a “rival feel” and players are calling a must-win.
Located about 45 miles southwest of Carbondale in Cape Girardeau, SEMO is sure to bring many fans to Saluki Stadium.
Although the Salukis (0-2) have claimed victory in 14 of their last 20 meetings with the Redhawks, sophomore tight end MyCole Pruitt said things have really heated up between the schools recently.
“It’s only 45 minutes away. Teams that close to each other obviously want to beat each other pretty badly,” Pruitt said. “A lot of people travel to see the game from both sides. The years that I’ve been here, we’ve gone back and forth with them. It’s been some pretty good games, and it’s turned into a rivalry.”
If a home opener against an area rival isn’t enough motivation to obtain a victory, a winless record should be.
A loss to SEMO (1-1) would drop the Salukis to 0-3, which is an almost insurmountable deficit if SIU still hopes to be in action come playoff time.
Junior running back Mika’il McCall said the team must not worry about the future quite yet, and focus only on SEMO.
“I think this is a must-win game,” McCall said. “We need to get this win and get the ball rolling, and others will come. Right now, I don’t think we should think about the playoffs. We should take it one game at a time. That’s how you make the playoffs.”
While McCall is only focused on SEMO, the Redhawks are likely emphasizing a focus on him.
McCall scored five of the Salukis’ six touchdowns this season. Averaging 15.0 points per game, he also leads the Missouri Valley Football Conference in scoring.
McCall said he is confident a defense that focuses only on him will leave too many weaknesses for his teammates to take advantage of.
“We have a lot of threats. We just have to find a way to use them,” he said. “It isn’t just me they have to worry about. Once they lock in on me, then everybody else will get a chance to show what they’ve got.”
Defensively, the Salukis must worry about stopping the Redhawks’ triple-option ground game. The triple-option consists of little passing paired with pitches from quarterback to running back on the outside. The result can wear down a defense and set up easy scores.
Lennon said the Saluki defense players must be prepared and stick to their individual assignments to be productive.
“When you defend option football, it’s not as simple as pinning your ears back and going,” Lennon said. “You really have to be assignment sharp, and that’s where we have to get taught here in a short period of time.”
Lennon said the Salukis have been able to get pressure with their defensive line, which allows more players to remain in coverage in the secondary, which is a major reason for the Salukis’ improved defense last week.
“I was happy that even though we were in a three-man rush we were able to get pressure on the quarterback (last week),” Lennon said. “Getting (defensive coordinator Bubba) Schweigert to use a three-man rush is like getting a Republican to vote Democrat. It was a good change-up for us. It gave our players a chance to make plays.”
While Lennon scoffs at the term “must-win,” he had to admit at his weekly press conference that Saturday’s game is crucial.
“They’re all must-win games. That’s the bottom line,” he said. “Next week we’ll be saying the same thing. That’s the nature of football. You only have 11 games on the season. It’s not like baseball or basketball where you can lose a couple and still be okay. In football, any lost game can make the challenge more difficult for you.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 6:00 p.m.