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Redhawks' QB Haley settled in after shaky start
The senior passed for 223 yards in Thursday's loss to SIU.
Southeast Missouri State's brand-new starting quarterback got off to a slow start Thursday night but ultimately displayed some of the traits that have coach Tim Billings excited about his potential.
Mike Haley, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound senior who saw very little action as Southeast's backup last year, completed 19 of 35 passes for 223 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions, during the Redhawks' 58-23 season-opening loss to fifth-ranked Southern Illinois.
"I thought Mike was a little shaky early, but he played better as the game went along," Billings said.
The strong-armed, mobile Haley said nerves got the better of many Southeast players -- himself included -- in the early stages of the contest before the Redhawks' offense seemed to get going.
"We were tense at the beginning. First game, big opponent," said Haley, who made his first-ever Division I-AA start. "As the game went on, we got more comfortable."
Southeast gained 354 yards and produced only two offensive touchdowns, with the Redhawks' defense scoring once. But Haley believes Southeast's offense showed the ability to perform well.
"I think we can definitely build on this game," said Haley, who completed 5 of 15 passes for 64 yards last season, his first at Southeast after transferring in from junior college. "When we executed, we moved the ball against one of the best defenses in the country."
Said senior wide receiver T.J. Milcic: "It's all about Mike's confidence. I know he can play."
As Billings had promised, No. 2 quarterback Kevin Ballatore, a junior college transfer in his first year with the program, also saw action Thursday. He played a couple of series early in the game, then Haley went the rest of the way until Ballatore came back in for the final few minutes.
Ballatore was 8-for-16 for 61 yards passing, with one touchdown and no interceptions.
But, while Southeast threw for 284 yards, the Redhawks' running game -- a problem all last season -- again struggled, netting just 70 yards on 22 attempts. It didn't help matters that junior college transfer Austen Collins suffered a knee injury on the game's second play and is expected to miss the rest of the season.
Defense allows big yards
Southeast's defense played relatively well for three quarters Thursday before SIU's high-powered offense dominated the final period, as the Salukis blew the game wide open.
But the bottom line is that, statistically, the Redhawks' defense is off to another porous start, thanks to SIU's whopping 545 yards of total offense.
Last year, the Redhawks ranked last among 119 Division I-AA teams in total defense, allowing an average of 492.8 yards per game. Southeast's defense also ranked toward the bottom in every other major statistical category.
Billings knows that any chance the Redhawks have of putting together a solid season hinges on defensive improvement over last year. He liked what he saw Thursday, despite the final numbers.
"I think we're a lot better on defense than we were last year," Billings said.
Said junior middle linebacker Seth Harrell, a former Jackson High School star: "I feel more comfortable with the defense this year after the SIU game than last year after the SIU game."
A year ago, the Salukis rolled up 550 yards during a 42-3 blasting of the Redhawks in Carbondale. SIU has outscored Southeast 128-33 in the last three meetings between the teams -- every one a rout by the Salukis.
"They're a great team," Harrell said.
* According to unofficial statistics, junior college transfer safety D'Eldrick Taylor led Southeast tacklers with eight. Senior end Justin Komondoreas was credited with two tackles for losses. Senior cornerback Kellin White, senior safety Reggie AuBuchon and junior college transfer tackle Nick Ferguson each recovered a fumble.
* In addition to having two punts blocked, All-American junior David Simonhoff -- who set school and Ohio Valley Conference records last year by averaging 46 yards per punt -- averaged just 38.2 yards on six boots Thursday.
The blocks don't count against Simonhoff's average, which was hurt by a 10-yard punt late in the third quarter as he was trying to pooch the ball after a drive had stalled inside SIU's 35-yard line. Simonhoff's longest punt was a 58-yarder.