[Ed. Note: This is the second in a series of stories that I found intriguing in 2008. This series will cover a storyline from the year that was from the perspective of the Cubs, White Sox, Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks and SIU football and men's basketball. This post details how the SIU football team didn't skip a beat despite numerous losses and changes. And why this picture, because these three gentlemen covered SIU football like a blanket. Not pictured Sean or Edyta and the many others who also helped cover Saluki football.]
There were more questions than answers coming into this season for the SIU football team.
How would first-year head coach Dale Lennon adapt from Division II to the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Div. I-AA? How would the team react to a new coaching staff implementing new schemes, systems and terminology? Would the team be able to be competitive in the newly named Missouri Valley Football Conference with the addition North Dakota State and South Dakota State? Would they be able to replace the offensive production lost with the graduations of quarterback Nick Hill, running back John Randle and offensive lineman Darren Marquez?
The answer to each of those questions was a resounding yes!
And they did it with a first-year head coach and a first-year starting quarterback.
Saluki football didn't skip a beat despite losing a majority of its offensive weaponry and the head coach that brought the team from near extinction to a powerhouse in the FCS. When Jerry Kill left, no one expected the kind of season SIU had.
The Salukis posted a 9-3 record in 2008, culminating with a Missouri Valley Football Conference title and sixth straight playoff berth. SIU went 7-1 in the MVFC, as its only blemish was a 35-27 loss at North Dakota State in which the Bison came back from a 20-point deficit to pick up the win.
And while many teams would have packed it in after a devestating road loss such as that one, the Salukis didn't. Senior running back Larry Warner spoke to the team after the game and said his words to his teammates after the loss helped spring the successful squad that played thereafter.
SIU rattled off seven straight wins en route to the conference crown. There were blowouts, shutouts, "shootouts," nailbiters, walk-off winners and overtime thrillers. If anything, this might have been the most entertaining Saluki team since (dare I say?) Brandon Jacobs donned the maroon and white.
Offensive coordinator Phil Longo brought in a modified spread offense which took advantage of Warner's speed, Chris Dieker's arm strength and various receiving threats on the outside.
Dieker threw 16 touchdowns, ran three in and even caught one. Warner rushed for over 1,200 yards, scored 10 touchdowns via the ground and returned three(!) kickoffs for touchdowns. He was an all-purpose threat and a nice guy, on top of that.
Lennon put defensive coordinator Bubba Schweigart in charge of the 3-4 defense each has run their entire careers. And James Cloud, Ryan Patton, Brandin Jordan and Chauncey Mixon made the lives of opposing quarterbacks and running backs a living nightmare.
Even though SIU found success in its first year under a new regime, there were still isues. Like its pass defense and team struggles during the dreaded third quarter.
In the end, the Salukis fell to New Hampshire, 29-20, in the first-round of the playoffs.
2009 Outlook: It looks as if the arrow is pointing up for SIU as it returns many key members of the team including Dieker, wide receivers Marc Cheatham, Joe Allaria, Bryce Morris, tight end Ryan Kernes and running back Richard White.
The defense returns Mixon, Jordan and Patton from the linebacking crew, not to mention defensive backs Korey Lindsey, Brandon Williams and Mike McElroy.
There is no reason for SIU not to be competitive in the MVFC next year with the returning talent and another year of familiarity under Lennon's system. Replacing Warner, Cloud and stud offensive lineman Aaron Lockwood might prove to be difficult, but the Salukis have gone down that path before.
And have still found a way to succeed.