2021 Division I FCS Playoff First Round Preview: Southern Illinois at South Dakota

FCS FIRST ROUND PLAYOFF MATCHUP: SOUTHERN ILLINOIS AT SOUTH DAKOTA
WHERE: DAKOTADOME, VERMILLION, S.D.
WHEN: SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 27TH, 5:00PM CST
TV/STREAMING: ESPN+

It is a rarity that two teams from the same conference play each other in the first round of the FCS playoffs but that is the case in this match-up. The NCAA rule for the opening round says that two teams from the same conference can not meet unless the two teams did not play each other in the regular season. These two Missouri Valley Football Conference squads did not meet this season and in fact did not meet in the last season in the spring schedule either.

The last time the two teams played was in 2019 when when Southern cruised to a 48-28 win at the DakotaDome. That win evened the series between the two at 3-3. That was the first win for SIU on the road in the series, while USD has one win in the history in Carbondale.

The Coyotes went 4-1 at home this season, and will host an FCS playoff game for the first time in the program’s history. USD hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2017, when it beat Nicholls on the road before losing to Sam Houston. The DakotaDome (9,100) has seen three Division II playoff games but none since 1986–the season that USD met North Dakota State in the Division II national championship game.

Southern Illinois is in the playoffs for the second straight season after the Salukis won an opening round road game at Weber State in the spring before falling to another MVFC squad team in South Dakota State.

SIU is making its 10th FCS playoff appearance overall. The Salukis were the national titlists in 1983 (defeating Western Carolina that season for the title). The 2007 team, which current SIU Coach Nick Hill was the quarterback, made it to the semi-final round (losing at home to Delaware) as the next best finish for the Salukis.

The Salukis started 6-0 against FCS opponents (lone loss was at FBS Kansas State), but enter the playoffs having lost three of their last four including a 35-18 setback at home last Saturday to Youngstown State. SIU biggest win on the season was at South Dakota State early in the MVFC slate.

USD started its 2021 season with a narrow FBS loss at Kansas and also lost its MVFC opener at Missouri State but then won three in a row before falling to Illinois State. It then won two in a row before falling last week at North Dakota State. The wins the Coyotes got were over playoff teams Northern Iowa and South Dakota State.

Here is a comparison of key statistics between these two teams below:

SOUTHERN ILLINOIS SALUKIS (7-4 5-3 MVFC)

Coach: Nick Hill – 6th Year at SIU – 6 Years Total as a Head Coach
Record at Southern Illinois: 30-36
Overall Record: 30-36
MVFC Championships: 0

As mentioned earlier, the Salukis are in the playoffs for a second straight season. SIU used the most of their appearance in the spring with a road win at Weber State and gave eventual national runner-up South Dakota State all it could handle in the quarterfinal round.

SIU will need to do it again on the road in this fall’s campaign in the postseason but as was seen last spring, this team knows how to play on the road. And this season, SIU only lost one FCS road game at Northern Iowa (it also had a close FBS lose at Kansas State 31-23.

QB Nic Baker leads the team as he had a MVFC-best 25 TD passes this season. He has a variety of weapons around him including RB Javon Williams Jr., who heads a trio of backs with between 395-475 yards rushing

The receiving leader is WR Landon Lenoir, who has 56 catches for 830 yards and 9 TDs. And is joined by WR Avante Cox, who was an All-American and All-MVFC First Team receiver this spring. He is averaging 17.6 yards per reception in 2021 and 13.9 yards per reception in his Saluki career.

Defensively, the Salukis have 12 interceptions and recovered 11 fumbles so they are very opportunistic. LB Bryce Notree leads the team in tackles and has 4.0 sacks and an interception. S Qua Brown has 72 tackles and an INT as the leader in the secondary.

Overall, the SIU defense ranked second in the conference in total defense, limiting opponents to 190.5 yards per game.

Key Player: QB Nic Baker

SIU has lost three of its last four games and the Saluki offense has not really clicked like it did in the first part of the season. Overall, Baker ranked third in the MVFC in passing, averaging 256.0 yards per game during the regular season. Baker threw for 2,816 yards and 25 touchdowns with 11 interceptions.

There has not been a lot of key injuries over this later part of the season to blame so the key area for the Salukis will be to mix the run and pass game in this game to keep the Coyote defense honest. And a key will be converting third downs. The Salukis rank 22nd nationally in first downs on offense this season, but their third-down performance over the past four games has been an issue. SIU has only a 24% success rate (12-for-51) on third downs over the last month. This is a key area that will have change in this playoff game if SIU hopes to move on.

SOUTH DAKOTA COYOTES (7-4 5-3 MVFC)

Coach: Bob Nielson – 6th Year at USD – 29 Years Total as a Head Coach
Record at South Dakota: 29-33
Overall Record: 215-113-1
MVFC Championships: 0

USD is making its second appearance in the FCS playoffs in its history but this will be its first home playoff game while in the Division I subdivision. It is also the first playoff home game since 1986 when the Coyotes were at the Division II level.

The Coyotes are 2-1 in their prior home playoff (all in the DakotaDome) record but since all of these appearances happened in the 1980s, this likely has little bearing on this contest.

South Dakota won five games in MVFC play for the first time in their history. Wins at UNI and at home against South Dakota State helped the Coyotes secure an at-large bid to the postseason as wins over fellow playoff squads.

RBs Nate Thomas and Travis Theis are two of the top-eight rushers in the Valley. The Coyotes are averaging 176 yards rushing, which ranks 28th nationally. Thomas is averaging 72.8 ypg, while Theis has a 65.3 ypg average.

QB Carson Camp leads the Valley and ranks ninth nationally in pass efficiency. His best target is WR Carter Bell, who ranks eight in the Valley in receiving but has totaled less than 25 yards in four of the last six games. He is joined by fellow WR Jeremiah Webb, catcher of the Hail Mary game winning play against SDSU, has been the Coyotes’ leading receiver the last two weeks. He had three college catches prior to that, but an injury to Kody Case has provided more opportunities for this up and coming performer.

Defensively, the team is led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Jack Cochrane who leads the team with 92 tackles and the Valley with four INTs. He is joined by DT Nick Gaes, who led the league with 7.0 sacks in MVFC play.

Overall, the Coyote defense ranked fourth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in both run defense and sacks this season.

Key Player: QB Carson Camp

The Coyotes offense has been more pass happy in prior seasons but with Camp, he has been very efficient when he needs his team to throw it. He has passed for 2,050 yards and 17 touchdowns with just four interceptions. He will need to make reads at the line to get his team into the right play against a stingy Saluki defense.

He will need to stay away from the turnovers (he had an interception in each of his last two games versus SDSU and NDSU) for the Coyotes to stay ahead in this game.

He will need to use his two top running backs behind him as well to have the key of USD controlling the time of possession.

Fearless Prediction:

Both teams are coming off arguably their toughest losses of the season. South Dakota had a chance to win a share of its first conference title last week at North Dakota State. But the Bison shredded the Coyotes’ highly-touted run defense to the tune of 303 yards and six touchdowns and rolled to an easy win.

On the flip side, Southern Illinois was hosting a 2-7 Youngstown State team on Senior Day, but saw Penguin RB Jaleel McLaughlin run for 185 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-18 win by YSU.

The familarity of two conference teams playing in the playoffs will likely make this a close game. If USD can get near a full house in capacity in the DakotaDome, this will aid the Coyotes and think it will give them the edge in this game as having been to several games inside their facility, it can get very loud.

This game will be close throughout but I like the Coyotes to have a late drive to win the game in the end. South Dakota 34 Southern Illinois 31

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