Among the marquee matchups in the first round of the spring edition of the FCS playoffs, a Weber State team that has made reaching the postseason an annual tradition faces a Southern Illinois program in its first playoff since 2009.
The Wildcats claimed the Big Sky Conference's automatic bid into the compacted tournament, back down to 16 participants for the first time since the last time SIU was in the field. The Salukis are one of five participants in the field out of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, and ride the strength of a blowout win over North Dakota State, a nail-biting win over then-No. 4 Northern Iowa, and a final-week shootout victory over then-No. 15 Southeastern Louisiana.
Although the Salukis lost three games during the regular season, second most of any team in the playoffs, their resume (highlighted by a win over North Dakota State) shows their capacity for hanging with any opponent in the FCS. But beating an undefeated Weber State with designs on a national championship will take perhaps the best effort Southern Illinois has in it.
FCS Playoffs First Round: Southern Illinois at Weber State
Kickoff: Saturday, April 24 at 4 p.m. ET
Spread: Weber State -4
When Southern Illinois Has the Ball
Quarterback Nic Baker sustaining a season-ending foot injury midway through the spring could have doomed Southern Illinois, but replacement Stone Labanowitz was rock-solid in the final two games of the regular season. He completed 25-of-34 passes with two touchdowns against Missouri State, another team in the playoff field, and led the Salukis in the shootout defeat of Southeastern Louisiana with 328 passing yards, two touchdowns, and a third score on the ground.
Weber State's defense held opponents to an average of 17.6 points per game and fewer than four rushing yards per attempt in the regular season. Southern Illinois will test both of those yields, particularly the Wildcats' run defense. The Salukis have a rotation of capable ball carriers, including 6-foot-2, 245-pound thumper Javon Williams Jr. He has seven rushing touchdowns on the season.
Turnovers vexed Southern Illinois in losses to North Dakota (five) and South Dakota State (four), and will be an element to watch on Saturday. The Wildcats average two takeaways a game, with Preston Smith's three interceptions setting the tone. Weber State's consistent pressure in the backfield translates to takeaway opportunities, and Sherwin Lavaka and George Tarlas make for a formidable pass-rushing tandem.
When Weber State Has the Ball
A solid, three-man rotation of backs paces a steady Weber State offense. Dontae McMillan and Daniel Wright Jr. both average more than six yards per carry, while the overall rushing yardage leader Josh Davis is just under that mark. Davis also missed the Wildcats' regular-season finale against Idaho State, so his status and form if he plays will be something to keep an eye on.
Freshman quarterback Bronson Barron debuted with a splash, throwing four touchdowns against overmatched Idaho State. However, he's only eclipsed the 200-yard passing mark in two games — both of which were against the Bengals.
Southern Illinois' defense has excelled against the pass, holding opponents to fewer than 180 yards per game, but is giving up five yards per carry and a hair less than 200 rushing yards per game. The Salukis must make Weber State a passing team, but doing so is a tall order with the Wildcats operating behind a line featuring first-team All-Big Sky honorees Noah Atagi and Ty Whitworth.
For the first time in a long time, the FCS playoffs feel wide open. Weber State's knocked on the door, but the Wildcats have yet to break through to Frisco, Texas, and a shot at the national championship. This may be their year, but getting past a Southern Illinois team with as many high-profile wins to its credit as the Salukis boast is hardly guaranteed.
The matchup's favorable to Weber State based on the Wildcats' strengths, namely their ability to generate turnovers and effectively run the ball. Should Weber State crack the 200-yard rushing mark and/or win the turnover battle, expect the Wildcats to move onto the quarterfinals.
Prediction: Weber State 27, Southern Illinois 17
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
(Top photo courtesy of @weberstatefb)