Two programs on the mend butt heads in rivalry game

Saturday, September 6, 2003

Southeast Missouri State University has not lost to Southern Illinois during Tim Billings' first three years as the Indians' coach.

But Billings said that will mean little tonight when the Salukis (1-0) and Indians (0-1) hook up in a regionally televised game at Houck Stadium.

"You don't even think about that," Billings said. "They're a much improved football team, and what we've done against them in the past won't have any bearing on what happens in this game."

Billings believes SIU is so improved, in fact, that the 22nd-ranked Indians will have to greatly step up the performance level from their opener just to stay with the Salukis. Southeast had five turnovers and just 300 yards of offense during a 17-3 loss at Division I-A Ohio.

"We'll have to get a lot better to have an opportunity to win this game," Billings said. "But I look for us to play a lot better."

SIU coach Jerry Kill also figures the Salukis will have to play much better today than they did in their opener, even though they hammered Division II Quincy 64-14.

"It's a game we'll have to play very, very well to win," Kill said. "We're going up against a very good football team, in my opinion one of the top 10 or 12 football teams in the country."

Kill, in his third season at SIU, is trying to rebuild the Salukis' program in much the same way Billings has at Southeast. He believes the Salukis are making solid progress but still have a long way to go.

The Salukis have had only two winning seasons since 1984 and their last winning record was in 1991. Kill went 1-10 in his first year at SIU and improved to 4-8 last season.

"Well, we're trying to do what they've done. They've done a great job. What's happened in such a short period of time is truly remarkable," Kill said. "I do think we're making strides. I'm not a real patient guy. I'd like things to move faster and faster.

"But we've got much better players and athletes than we had two years ago. The big problem is inexperience. We don't have guys that have been in the program several years. We've only got seven seniors."

SIU had an impressive offense last year, averaging 394 yards and 34.5 points per game, but defense was a weak spot as the Salukis allowed 406 yards and 30 points a contest.

"We feel like our defense has improved. We've gotten a lot bigger and stronger up front," Kill said.

Offense again figures to be no problem for the Salukis, who are led by senior tailback Muhammad Abdulqaadir. In his first season at SIU last year, the junior-college transfer rushed for 1,331 yards and 20 touchdowns while playing in just eight games due to injury. In this year's opener, Abdulqaadir gained 142 yards on just 10 attempts.

Another premier SIU tailback, school career rushing leader Tom Koutsos, missed most of last year with an injury and he is questionable for today after banging up a knee against Quincy.

But the Salukis have other weapons, including sophomore quarterback Joel Sambursky, last season's Gateway Conference freshman of the year after passing for 1,308 yards and rushing for 487 yards; and fullback Brandon Robinson, who rushed for 727 yards a year ago.

One of the Salukis' primary receivers is former Poplar Bluff High School star Brent Little.

"They are very, very explosive on offense. They'll be a lot better on offense than Ohio U. was," Billings said. "And they have really improved defensively from last year."

Said Southeast defensive end Ryan Roth, "They've got a great offense, with running backs that are really talented, a lot better than Ohio's. It's going to be another big challenge for our defense."

Even though Southeast is 3-0 against SIU since Billings began coaching the Indians, he emphasized that it's not like the games have been lopsided. In Billings' first season, the Indians needed a miracle second-half rally to prevail. And last year, they needed a late touchdown to pull out a 21-14 victory. Abdulqaadir saw little action in that game as he was coming back from an injury.

"This is the best SIU team since we've been here; it's not even close," Billings said. "We know we're going to have our hands full, but it's our first home game and we should have a really big crowd. It should be a great game."

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