The Salukis evolved from summer camp to conference champs under the direction of a first-year coach and were led by a first-year starting quarterback.
Here are my 10 favorite moments from the football season.
- When the curtain opened on the 2008-09 season, the efficiency of the offense was questioned after the defense dominated its August scrimmages. Yet, a 37-point effort led by first-year starting quarterback Chris Dieker put SIU on the map. He threw for 216 yards and three touchdowns as the Salukis silenced their critics. [Playmakers pace SIU past Pirates]
- I'll never forget Joe Allaria's conversion to a wide receiver because it was the first time I broke a story. I'll never forget it because after I witnessed Allaria running routes and catching passes from Dieker, I went into the newsroom and told my editor "Joe Allaria's catching passes, that's a big deal, right?" It immediately went to the blog. Eventually a story developed. Allaria developed into a pretty solid route runner and one of Dieker's go-to-guys in the flats, near the sidelines and over the middle. Allaria's versatility will be key to future Saluki squads. [Allaria a wide receiver?]
- My favorite stories revolved around a football team that shined three years before I was born. Writng about reuniting members of the 25th anniversary of the only national title the football program was so much fun. Head coach Rey Dempsey had so much to offer about football and life beyond the gridiron. I'd go on, but I don't want to leave anyone out. [1983 team honored for the past, witnesses future]
- While blowout wins provide many highlights, it was what was done under the radar that stood out to me. It was the Saluki super-subs who earned a gold star in the 60-7 rout of the Sycamores. Special teams standout Kyle Walker collected seven tackles, a sack and a return touchdown. Reserve running back Jonate Govan tallied 94 yards on 10 total touches, including a 20-yard rushing touchdown. The Salukis' depth was one of the factors that helped the team reach its ultimate goal of a conference title. [SIU subs help Salukis roll to 53-point victory]
- My first true football road trip (the game against Northwestern doesn't count) yielded the provided photo from Sean McGahan, who captured my love for cheerleaders with that picture. As for the game, it solved a lot of questions media folks like me had about the team. It was the team's first road win. It was probably the first time SIU played a complete game. It ws the first evidence of the team gelling, as it shutout Youngstown State, 33-0. [SIU pitches shutout for first road victory]
- It was the great escape. It was an act Houdini would have been proud of. If Eli Manning wasn't busy on Sunday's, he would have been jealous of Chris Dieker. Dieker eluded the grasp of two Missouri State defenders and heaved a pass downfield to an open Marc Cheatham to give the Salukis the win as time expired. [Last-second TD gives SIU 23-17 win at Missouri State]
- After hearing University of Michigan big wigs preach patience as Rich Rodgriuez puts forth his new system as the team struggles, I needed to take note that Lennon was putting together a new offense, a new defense and a whole new kind of lingo. Yet, no one made excuses, SIU just went out and played and Lennon just went out and coached. And really, that's all you can ask. [Coaching factory keeps SIU churning]
- Senior running back Larry Warner was a human highlight reel all on his own. He's great on the field, off the field and he's one heck of a quote. He racked up a career-best 256 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a 40-21 win against North Dakota, Lennon's former school. [Warner carries SIU to victory]
- This was the first game in which I left McAndrew Stadium thinking that SIU was a national title contender. The Saluki defense stifiled Herb Donaldson and Western Illinois' outstanding rushing attack. And then when they had to air it out, cornerback Korey Lindsey picked a pair or passes to seal the Saluki win. [Saluki defense denies Western Comeback]
- Saluki cornerback James Wheeler went from picked on by South Dakota State quarterback Ryan Berry to picking off Berry's last-minute attempt to pull off the upset at McAndrew Stadium. Wheeler was burned time-and-again by Berry and the high-flying air attack of the JackRabbits, but his last minute pick sealed another SIU win. [Timely turnovers give SIU victory]