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Jeff Kolpack, Published November 04 2010

Lennon returns to North Dakota with a struggling Southern Illinois squad

Returning to his home state still has the same sentimental flavor for Southern Illinois head football coach Dale Lennon. He had a request of 29 tickets for Saturday’s game against North Dakota State at the Fargodome.

But there is a difference from his first trip in 2008: The Salukis are having an uncharacteristic losing season. The two-time defending Missouri Valley Football Conference champions are

2-3 in the league and 3-5 overall.

It’s a scene Lennon hasn’t seen very often in his 14 years as a head coach, dating back to the University of North Dakota and the University of Mary (N.D.).

“It reminds me a lot of 2002 at North Dakota,” he said.

The Sioux went 5-6 that season, one year removed from an NCAA Division II national championship. Like the Salukis this year, the Sioux lost a big senior class from the previous season.

“The preseason hype was big,” Lennon said. “But sometimes you just have years like this where everything becomes a struggle.”

So, Lennon said experience has taught him not to over-react. The Sioux rebounded from the 2002 losing season to make it back to the 2003 national title game in Florence, Ala.

“You just try to do the same things that you do, keep the same philosophies and keep preaching the same messages to the players,” he said. “The whole key is to stay consistent.”

So what has happened to the Salukis, the preseason pick to the Missouri Valley? Injuries have virtually depleted the secondary, to the point where they were playing four freshmen last week against Missouri State.

Poor tackling cost them in losses to Southeast Missouri State, Illinois and South Dakota State. Four turnovers cost them in a loss at Youngstown State and the Salukis have not gone a game this year without a turnover.

On offense, most of the big plays have been turned in by special teams.

“But we know they’re a really good team,” said NDSU offensive guard Paul Cornick. “We’ve seen this year that anybody can knock off anybody and we’re not looking at their record.”

SIU is the only league team to beat Northern Iowa to date. And the Salukis have this statistic to bring to Fargo: They’re 2-0 against ranked teams this year and 6-1 in regular-season games against top 25 teams under Lennon.

“We’re going through some growing pains, we’ve come up a little short in some of our attempts,” Lennon said. “Right now, we’re experiencing one of those seasons where you can’t put it together when you need to.”

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be heard on the Saturday Morning Sports Show, 9-11 a.m. on WDAY-AM (970). He can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia