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SIU becoming powerhouse at I-AA level

DeKALB - Southern Illinois has carved out a reputation as a hotbed for hoops. Six straight NCAA Tournament bids, with a school-best No. 4 seed in the 2007 dance. Five regular season Missouri Valley Conference titles in the last six years. Not quite grabbing near the same media attention, the Southern Illinois football team is becoming a powerhouse in the state, rivaling the success of the Saluki basketball program. During the last four years, the Salukis have won 39 games to place them in the same company of college football's elite programs. Since 2003, the Salukis have found themselves jostling for postion with the likes of heavyweights Southern California, Texas, LSU, Oklahoma, Auburn, Louisville, Ohio State, Georgia and Virginia Tech for the most wins. The Salukis rank 12th on the list of FBS, formerly Division I-A, and FCS, the former Division I-AA, programs in total victories since 2003, with USC's 49 wins leading the pack. Back in 2004, the last time the Salukis visited Huskie Stadium, a failed two-point conversion in the final seconds spoiled a potential upset bid for the Salukis. Otherwise, the Salukis would be tied with Virginia Tech with 40 victories. Adding to SIU's recent football legacy is a 54-week consecutive run of ranking in the Top 20 in either the The Sports Network or FCS Coaches Poll. Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak doesn't plan on taking the Salukis lightly. &#8220I think it will be a heck of a game, I really do,” Novak said. &#8220I saw them play once last year and they are a sound football team. Anytime we play them it can be critical to our success.” Posting a 35-28 victory at Indiana in 2006, the Salukis (1-0) became the first Gateway Conference team in history to defeat a Big 10 opponent. Appalachian State, ranked No.1 in this week's FCS poll, helped put the spotlight on all the FCS, formerly called Division I-AA, teams with last week's stunning triumph over Michigan. Ranked 11th in the current FCS poll, the Salukis plan on following Appalachian State's path against the Huskies. &#8220It was a huge win, a huge win for all of us,” said SIU coach Jerry Kill, referring to ASU's win over Michigan. &#8220It makes all of us look a lot better.” The Huskies (0-1) don't want their name garnering any national attention on ESPN for losing to the Salukis. If not for a few mental and physical mistakes, the Huskies would've knocked off Iowa at Soldier Field last Saturday. The current crop of Huskies understands the hardships with starting the season off with two straght losses. Northern Illinois dug itselves out of 0-2 holes in each of the last two seasons, winning the 2005 Mid-American Conference West Divison and grabbing a bid in the 2006 Poinsettia Bowl. &#8220We had a missed opportunity last week,” said junior defensive end Larry English. &#8220My thing is I don't want that feeling again. That's why this weekend is so big for us. It's our true home opener against an in-state rival. A big game for both of us. They're a good team.” For Northern Illinois, tonight's game kicks off a pivotal three-game string of winnable games before embarking on a stretch of five of its next six games on the road. Quarterback Dan Nicholson summed up the team's desire to avoid a repeat of the last two years. &#8220We're taking this game extremely serious,” Nicholson said. &#8220Not only because the fact we don't want to go 0-2, but Southern Illinois is a good football team.” Bobby Narang can be reached at bnarang@daily-chronicle.com.

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