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Kevin Schnepf, Published October 27 2012

Schnepf: Lennon's Salukis are dealt a tough conference loss

Fargo - Dale Lennon’s return to North Dakota on Saturday probably conjured up childhood memories of playing sandlot football in the tiny town of Knox.

“We would round up all the kids in the neighborhood and play until it was dark,” Lennon recalled of growing up in the town of 25 residents located near Rugby.

Lennon’s Southern Illinois football team – relying on the work ethic their coach acquired from his dad working at the Knox grain elevator – had the task of playing No. 3-ranked North Dakota State on Saturday.

This game also wasn’t decided until it turned dark. Final score: NDSU 23, Southern Illinois 17.

“This stings,” said Lennon, whose talented team faces the possibility of missing the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for a third straight year. “If I could find the words to tell you how much it stings, I would tell you.”

It was only four weeks ago when Southern Illinois was all but labeled as dead with a 2-3 record. Talk of Lennon being on the hot seat surfaced again.

Out of nowhere, the Salukis came to Fargo riding a three-game win streak and staking a claim to a Missouri Valley Football Conference championship. But after Saturday’s slugfest, even Bison head coach Craig Bohl offered words of encouragement to Lennon.

“You’ve got a good football team … hang in there,” Bohl said, shaking Lennon’s hand before his postgame news conference. “Hopefully, things will sort itself out and you will keep playing.”

Bohl was referring to the FCS playoffs – something Lennon and the Salukis haven’t been a part of since 2009. That doesn’t sit well in Carbondale, where Salukis fans have become spoiled with winning football, especially after a national championship in 1983.

Lennon is well aware of the high expectations at Southern Illinois, where they have had trouble filling up its new 15,000-seat stadium. But the man who hired him back in 2007 – athletic director Mario Moccia – was supporting Lennon after Saturday’s game.

“Dale has been great in the community and everybody loves him,” said Moccia, who extended Lennon’s contract last February through the 2014 season. “The thing that people have to remember is that this conference has gotten a lot better. All I know is I think we have a solid team and solid guys.”

Lennon, who had a 90-24 record and one national championship as the head coach at the University of North Dakota, has often been described as a coach with a level head. He never gets too high, never gets too low.

And as low as he may have felt Saturday in the Fargodome, he knows his team still has an outside shot at the playoffs. Home wins against South Dakota State and Western Illinois would give the Salukis seven wins for the regular season.

“We’re still alive,” Lennon said. “The magic number people throw out there is 7.”

Moccia added: “All we have to do is win the next two, we’re 7-4 and we see how the landscape is then.”

The landscape is still pretty much the same back in Lennon’s hometown of Knox. There just may not be as many sandlot football games played anymore.

“I feel blessed to have grown up there,” Lennon said.

Now he hopes his Southern Illinois football team continues to grow up.

“I’m really proud of this team in the way they have been able to keep the highs in perspective and the lows in perspective,” said Lennon, who now has a 5-5 record against NDSU (4-1 at UND). “Today we just couldn’t find the right combination to pull it off.”

To pull it off before they had to return home before dark.


Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549 or kschnepf@forumcomm.com. Schnepf’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com