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Saluki offense more than just smashmouth football

September 4, 2011

By Tom Weber
Saluki Media Services

In watching Southern Illinois overpower SEMO on Saturday, 38-10, the identity of this year’s offense is now clear.

The Salukis will play smashmouth football behind a deep and experienced offensive line and a pair of explosive tailbacks in Steve Strother and Jewel Hampton. Throw in the run dimension of quarterback Paul McIntosh, and you have the makings of a potent ground game.

But SIU won’t be one-dimensional this season. In fact, Lennon will insist they take shots down the field to keep defenses honest. He even made a surprising admission that the team didn’t throw the ball enough in last year’s loss to SEMO.

“Last year, we were maybe a little too stubborn and stuck to the run,” he said. “This year, we made sure they played us honestly.”

When SEMO crowded the line of scrimmage to stop the run last night, they left guys like Cam Fuller, John Lantz and MyCole Pruitt in one-on-one coverage. As he has done throughout training camp, McIntosh was able to spot the mismatches and deliver a perfect downfield strike. Four of his 14 completions went for at least 28 yards.

Southern’s formula is to let the running game set the table for the passing attack. If the defense overcommits to stop the run, McIntosh can burn it with play-action. Kalen Deboer’s system is tried and true, but it only works when you have a great offensive line, a stud running back or two, a quarterback who can deliver the goods and some playmakers outside.

G Terrence Isaiah leads RB Jewel Hampton into the end zone against SEMO

It’s still early, but the Salukis look like they are going to be fun to watch on offense.

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At 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds, Strother is emerging as a focal point of the Saluki offense. Besides rushing for 81 yards on nine carries, Strother caught three passes. He can line up in the backfield or the slot, requiring defenses to account for him at all times.

“I feel like I can do anything on offense — run the ball, catch the ball — and the coaching staff knows that too,” he said. “They try to get me the ball in space so I can make big plays.”

His speed and shiftiness is a nice complement to the more powerful Hampton.

“We’re calling it the new Thunder and Lightning,” Strother said. “We’re going to give it everything we have every week.”

On several occasions this fall, Lennon has praised Strother’s leadership — a role the junior from Culpepper, Va. has grown into.

“We had a lot of seniors leave, so we knew someone was going to have to step up,” he said. “We didn’t have that many people on the offense that played last year or the year before that, so I stepped up and tried to take a little bit of a leader role. I’m just being positive with everybody.”

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If you watch a replay of the Strother 62-yard TD run, you’ll see just how athletic and mobile Southern’s offensive line is. Both right guard Jessy McMullin and right tackle Richard Wilson both threw tremendous downfield blocks. McMullin chopped down a SEMO linebacker that gave Strother the crease he needed to go the distance.

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One of Coach Lennon’s rules is that first-year players can’t do interviews with the media until after they’ve played their first game. It was nice to hear Hampton speak up for the first time about his decision to transfer from Iowa to SIU.

“Once I got here I automatically felt at home because I just felt good with the population and the diversity of the student body,” he said. “I didn’t have that at Iowa. Iowa is a great place, but I got it here and I just feel at home.”

Hampton proved himself as a playmaker at the Big Ten level, and there’s no reason to think he won’t do the same at Southern, now that his knee issues are behind him.

“It’s almost been an exact year since I played football,” he said. “I’m just happy to be back out there with my new team. When I got out there, it was just how I remembered it, so I just kept rolling with the punches.”

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If you look at the size of Southern’s front seven on defense, which averages about 235 pounds, you might worry about the ability to stop the run.

What a pleasant surprise then to see SIU completely dominate the line of scrimmage against SEMO. They did it with speed, not girth, and one of the most dominating performances by a defensive tackle I’ve seen at SIU.

At 282 pounds, Kayon Swanson isn’t a traditional two-gap nose tackle. His ability to dart past a blocker and disrupt a play is his greatest asset. Give Southern’s coaching staff credit for adjusting the scheme to free up Swanson. He often lined up in the guard-tackle gap and was a presence in the SEMO backfield all night.

“I need to do this for 15-straight weeks if we’re going to have a chance,” Swanson told me afterward. “Our defensive line could be something nasty.”

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Swanson made some interesting comments about the dynamic on this year’s team when adversity hits. On SEMO’s second drive of the game, the Salukis were flagged twice for personal fouls. The 15-yard penalties extended SEMO’s drive and allowed it to kick a field goal.

“We police each other,” he said. “We don’t need no hoorah and cussing out. All we say is, ‘you mess up, you make up.’ We didn’t keep our heads down, we just kept going and we just kept fighting and we knew that we’d come back.”

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The limit on K Jackson MacLachlan’s range appears to be about 40 yards. So when the Salukis have the ball between the opponent’s 25 to 35 yard line, you can expect it to be four-down territory. They were 1-for-2 on fourth down conversions against SEMO, going for it on the Redhawks 29 and 30 yard lines.

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