The chance to face North Dakota State in the second round of the FCS Playoffs will be at stake when South Dakota meets Southern Illinois on Saturday. It’s a local rivalry from the Missouri Valley Conference, where 7-4 SIU went 5-3 in the conference.
South Dakota actually finished with identical records to Southern Illinois, but head coach Bob Nielson’s team was 3-3 on the road, compared with the Salukis’ 4-2 mark on their travels. It means the Coyotes will welcome the sight of the DakotaDome for their first tilt at the postseason since 2017.
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The game (6 p.m. ET start time) isn’t on TV anywhere, but anyone in the US can watch Southern Illinois vs South Dakota and every other FCS playoff first-round game live on ESPN+:
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Southern Illinois vs South Dakota 2021 Preview
Nielson is likely not relishing a return matchup with North Dakota State after the Bison thumped the Coyotes 52-24 last time out. That game exposed defensive frailties, so South Dakota would be wise to lean on a potentially dynamic offense to prolong the team’s stay in the playoffs. It’ll happen if running backs Nate Thomas and Travis Theis see plenty of work.
Thomas has averaged 6.4 yards per carry, while Theis has provided a useful complement. He’s less of a big-play threat, but Theis is a steady grinder who can be counted on to gain the tough yards in clutch situations. Getting both running backs touches early should force SIU to load up the box and leave space deep for Carter Bell to exploit.
Bell’s diminutive stature belies his game-breaking potential, but the 5’10”, 170-pound wideout has proven adept at punishing any defense lulled into a false sense of security. He caught touchdowns covering 91 and 60 yards when the Coyotes hammered Western Illinois, 42-21, on the road earlier this month.
Establishing another prolific connection between Bell and quarterback Carson Camp won’t be easy against a SIU defense stingy against the pass. The Salukis have held opponents to 190.55 yards per game through the air and 6.55 per attempt. It helps to have a decent pass rush led by defensive end Jordan Berner and defensive tackle Kevin Glajchen, who combined for 9.5 of the team’s 32.5 sacks.
Southern Illinois will hope to unleash another useful double act in the passing game, quarterback Nic Baker and his leading receiver, Landon Lenoir. The latter caught nine touchdown passes in 2021 and is the sure-handed, go-to guy in this offense having not lost a fumble from any of his 56 receptions.
Lenoir ought to draw a crowd in Vermillion, and that could mean more room for Avante Cox. He’s the field-stretcher whenever Baker wants yardage in chunks. Cox averaged 17.91 a grab en route to the playoffs, so South Dakota defensive coordinator Travis Johansen had better protect the back end of his coverage schemes.
Corralling Baker and his receivers will be the key to victory for the Coyotes. Baker’s enjoyed a fine campaign, throwing for 2,816 yards and 25 touchdowns. South Dakota needs a big game from defensive end Nick Gaes, who paced the team with seven sacks. It would also help to send blitzing linebacker Jacob Matthew after Baker as often as possible.
The Coyotes have enough talent along the front seven to make Baker uncomfortable in the pocket, but if the Salukis’ signal-caller can avoid the rush, he’ll pick Johansen’s defense apart.