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2022 Know your Opponent: Southern Illinois

Northwestern’s only FCS opponent in 2022 isn’t a pushover.

Southern Illinois v Kansas State Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

With kickoff to Northwestern’s season opener in Dublin, Ireland under 25 days away, it’s time to begin examining the Wildcats’ opponents during their 2022 season via the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll be breaking down the teams that NU will face each week, discussing their 2021 campaigns, season outlooks and more.

We’ll move on to the Southern Illinois Salukis, Northwestern’s only FCS opponent in 2022.

The Basics

2021 Record: 8-5 (6-3 MVFC)

Coach: Nick Hill

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2021 SP+ Overall: 13th of 128 (FCS)

2021 SP+ Offense: 8th

2021 SP+ Defense: 51st

2021 Capsule

Southern Illinois’ season was a tale of two halves. After winning their first four conference games and starting 6-1 overall – with their only blemish a 31-23 road loss to Kansas State – the Salukis lost four of their last six. At the root of the problem was an inconsistent defense.

Most of Southern Illinois’ victories during its hot start were a product of its offensive prowess, something expected given its top-10 SP+ ranking in that area. But three of SIU’s first six wins came by a field goal or less even though it averaged almost 38 points per game during that initial seven-game stretch. Consecutive overtime road victories against Western Illinois (31-30) and South Dakota State (41-40) may have added flair, but also foreshadowed regression.

As the offense fell back down to earth, that’s exactly what happened. Northern Iowa, Youngstown State and Missouri State shredded SIU on the ground and handed it crucial conference losses. The Salukis made the FCS playoffs and defeated South Dakota 22-10 in the first round, but eventual champion North Dakota State manhandled their run defense again in a 38-7 blowout the next week.

Southern Illinois finished the season ranked No. 16 in the FCS according to STATS – eight spots lower than its 2020-21 position.

Offensive Overview

As previously mentioned, Southern Illinois’ had a prolific offense last season. The unit might be even better in 2022 with most of its weapons set to return.

Junior quarterback Nic Baker will assume the starting role for a second season after tossing 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 2021. Leading receiver Landon Lenoir graduated after posting 876 yards and 10 touchdowns, but the other six pass-catchers who racked up more than 100 yards will be back. Avante Cox and Izaiah Hartrup will likely lead the way for the Salukis.

All three members of SIU’s committee backfield in 2021 are also back. Javon Williams Jr., Justin Strong and Donnavan Spencer combined for over 1,500 yards on almost 5.5 yards per carry last year.

The only concerns about the unit’s experience center around the offensive line, which lost two starters. Junior tackle Beau Branyan headlines the group.

Defensive Overview

It’s the opposite story once again for the defense, especially the front seven. The Salukis will be without their two leading tacklers and their two leading sack-getters. That includes linebacker Bryce Notree, who signed with the Washington Commanders as an undrafted free agent this spring.

Defensive end Richie Hagarty and linebacker Makel Calhoun will likely spearhead the unit in the trenches. Behind them, the secondary will be more experienced even though it lost some starpower after first-team All-MVFC member Qua Brown graduated. PJ Jules, David Miller and Clayton Bush all started in the Salukis’ defensive backfield last year.

Three Players to Know

WR Avante Cox

Cox wasn’t the focal point of SIU’s passing attack last season, but he has the potential to be a game-breaker as Nic Baker’s new top option. The former Wyoming wideout is a shifty and dynamic receiver who can constantly stretch the field. His 17.2 yards per reception average led the Salukis in 2021, and he showed enough flashes to warrant a first-team All-MVFC preseason nod.

RB Javon Williams Jr.

As SIU’s other preseason first-team offense honoree, Williams offers the Saluki offense multiple avenues to succeed. Not only is the unit as a whole balanced, but also the rushing attack by itself. While SIU rotates their top three running backs, Williams is capable of being a three-down player — he received over 60 more carries in 2019 than he did in 2021. That makes it much easier for Hill to keep defenses on their toes when deciding whether to deploy Williams, Strong or Spencer.

CB PJ Jules

Jules will anchor the Salukis’ secondary following Qua Brown’s departure. He excelled as an open-field tackler last season, racking up the third-highest total on the team with 74. He also has the potential to make big strides as a playmaker against the pass if SIU can shore up its run defense.