FOOTBALL: Toppers to face mirror image

Danny Schoenbaechler

The Western football team may feel like it’s looking in a mirror at times on Saturday.

Southern Illinois coach Jerry Kill, in his third year with the Salukis, has placed his team in a similar mold as former Western coach Jack Harbaugh.

“Coach Kill was a big fan of coach Harbaugh,” Western coach David Elson said. “They’ve really studied our program.”

SIU may have realized that Western’s own style may be the perfect fit for stopping the Toppers. The recipe?

Make sure your team runs the ball well and that the other team doesn’t.

Southern Illinois (8-0, 4-0 Gateway Conference) is on top of the Gateway standings because of its running game and much improved defense. The Hilltoppers (6-2, 3-1 GFC) need a victory to keep their conference title hopes alive.

SIU and Northern Iowa are undefeated in conference play and tied for first place. Western is in second and plays Northern Iowa next week.

The Saluki running game is led by a trio of backs. Seniors Muhammad Abdulqaadir, Tom Koutsos and Brandon Robinson.

Abdulqaadir and Koutsos lead the way with 725 and 644 yards respectively. They’ve each scored nine touchdowns.

“If we think we have depth, they have depth and experience,” Elson said.

Abdulqaadir and Koutsos split time at running back and will often share the backfield with Robinson.

Elson said Robinson can be the most threatening of the three because he is versatile.

The running game has averaged 294 yards per game and a nation-best 42.2 points a game.

A successful ground attack is something these Toppers are very familiar with.

Sophomore Lerron Moore is just 92 yards away from becoming the eighth 1,000- yard rusher in Western’s 85-year football history.

It won’t be easy as the hobbled Moore faces one of the nation’s top defenses against the run.

A bad quadriceps muscle should keep Moore from getting the 30-plus carries that he is accustomed to.

His 908 yards are 19th in the nation, but between his faulty quad and the Saluki defense, Saturday doesn’t figure to be easy.

What may separate these teams is which defense is able to stop the run.

The Salukis have only yielded 88 rushing yards a game, while the Topper defense, conversely, has allowed 127 yards per game.

With linebacker Charles Thompson returning from a knee injury, Western gave up only 101 yards against Indiana State last week.

“They rebounded last week but have to step up this week,” Elson said. “I don’t think you’re going to stop it and just shut them down.”

Elson said Thompson hasn’t lost a step and should be very active on Saturday.

“I think he’s right back where he left off,” Elson said. “We expect to have the same old Charles Thompson out there.”

Thompson and Erik Dandy have been patrolling the middle as expected, but Missouri transfer Brandon Smith has also shined playing alongside Thompson and Dandy.

“He’s been really good,” Elson said with a chuckle of excitement. “We are very pleasantly surprised with him. Now that he’s learning the defense, he is a difference- maker.”

Smith had seven tackles against Indiana State, including three sacks, and 49 tackles and seven sacks on the season.

Reach Danny Schoenbaechler at [email protected]