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Opening challenge - Stop SIU
Southeast Missouri State University's defense has heard all about Southern Illinois' vaunted backfield, which features two Division I-A transfers.
Widely regarded as the premier Division I-AA trio of running backs -- the unit includes a junior college transfer -- entering the season, some people have even ranked SIU's group among the best in all of college football.
The Indians' defenders no doubt respect the Salukis' backfield that simply oozes with talent. But they also relish the challenge that awaits them tonight when Southeast kicks off the 2004 season against the Salukis in Carbondale, Ill. SIU is ranked No. 2 by both major I-AA polls and No. 1 by Athlon Magazine.
"They're some really good backs and they're getting all kinds of hype," senior linebacker O.J. Turner said. "It's a big challenge for us."
Said fellow linebacker Corey Andrade, a sophomore, "I've heard nothing but good stuff, but you never know until you face them. It's a big challenge, a big step for us."
After star tailbacks Muhammad Abdulqaadir (1,041 yards) and Tom Koutsos (968) completed their eligibility following SIU's breakout 10-2 playoff season last year, that position seemed to be the only question mark on what appeared to be an otherwise loaded Salukis squad heading into 2004.
But SIU coach Jerry Kill didn't have to worry about his backfield very long. In short order, Terry Jackson transferred from Minnesota and Brandon Jacobs did likewise from Auburn.
And these weren't just your ordinary I-A transplants who might have dropped down a division to play their final college season after never experiencing any success in the big time.
The speedy 5-foot-11, 195-pound Jackson rushed for 1,317 yards as a Minnesota sophomore in 2002 before seeing his playing time sliced considerably last year, when he gained 256 yards. He decided to leave and reportedly settled on SIU because his former high school coach knows Kill well.
Jacobs, a 6-4, 255-pounder who is surprisingly fast, gained 182 yards during a game against Mississippi State last year. He finished with 446 yards and a team-high 6.2 yards per carry, but Auburn also had in its backfield two of the nation's premier runners, so Jacobs left after figuring he would have been hard-pressed to receive the carries he desired. He reportedly opted for SIU because he attended the same junior college (Coffeyville, Kan.) as Abdulqaadir and several other current Salukis.
One outlet has ranked Jackson and Jacobs as the fourth and fifth best running backs eligible for next year's NFL draft.
"Until you play in a game I'm not one to make statements that they're the best we've ever had," Kill said. "But I will tell you they've been very pleasant to coach, they're very athletic and they have great speed. We're glad they're here."
But SIU's backfield harvest did not end with Jackson and Jacobs. Kill also landed 5-9, 195-pound sophomore speedster Arkee Whitlock, who rushed for 1,383 yards and 17 touchdowns last year as a junior college freshman at Coffeyville, Kan.
"You could make the case that they're the best backfield in the country for any division," Southeast coach Tim Billings said. "And the thing is, a team that can run like they do, it makes the passing game so dangerous. Their quarterback can throw and run, and they've got good wide receivers.
"Their defense was also very solid last year, and they've got all those guys back. They're a very solid football team, which is why they're ranked No. 1 in the country."
SIU quarterback Joel Sambursky, a 6-foot, 195-pound junior, passed for 1,667 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. His favorite target is Poplar Bluff High School product Brent Little, a 6-foot, 185-pound junior who led the Salukis with 36 receptions for 641 yards in 2003.
But there is no doubt that many of the eyes in McAndrew Stadium tonight will be on SIU's runners, who will operate behind an experienced offensive line. And a big question is how Kill plans to divide the carries for his heralded trio. At least for the opener, Whitlock will man the Salukis' unique superback position that combines rushing and receiving, while Jackson and Jacobs figure to split time at tailback.
Regardless of the combination, Southeast defenders know they'll have to be at the top of their game if they expect to slow the Salukis and avenge last year's 28-7 home loss to SIU, which followed three straight wins by the Indians in the series.
"We're taking it as a challenge, and we're definitely excited about it," Turner said.
Senior defensive end Adam Jones, while respecting SIU's ability, figures the game would be huge no matter how high or low the Salukis were ranked.
"It's a challenge, but it's a rivalry. It's always a big game no matter if they're No. 1 or not," he said.
And the key to slowing down SIU's big three.
"Knock 'em in the mouth," Jones said, smiling. "Just hard nosed football."
Cornerback Charles McCoy and running backs John Radney and Lawrence Letuli -- the three California junior college transfers whose official transcripts have not yet arrived at Southeast -- will not play tonight.
Sophomore wide receiver Antonio Scaife will also not play tonight. He has been suspended indefinitely for an unspecified violation of team rules.