SIU headed for playoff showdown vs. suburban QB

Spring football at the college level is typically a time for extra practices and one overhyped scrimmage.

Southern Illinois is not only playing for real, it's making school history. After collecting a victory in its first FCS playoff appearance since 2009, the Salukis will face South Dakota State Sunday (8 p.m., ESPN2) in a quarterfinal matchup.

The last time SIU made the so-called final four of the FCS playoffs in 2007, current head coach Nick Hill was the starting quarterback.

"My heart and soul is here," said Hill, a native of downstate DuQuoin. "I wouldn't be where I'm at without this program. I feel a sense of pride of representing the alumni in the right way."

Just getting to the playoffs was an adventure. The Salukis pulled a stunning 38-14 upset over FCS power North Dakota State in Carbondale Feb. 27. But losses to South Dakota State, North Dakota and Missouri State left SIU likely on the wrong side of the playoff bubble.

On top of that, SIU's last two scheduled games, against Western Illinois and Illinois State, were both canceled because those programs pulled the plug on spring football midway through the season due to safety concerns.

The Salukis managed to schedule a last-minute game against a ranked opponent and beat Southeastern Louisiana 55-48 to earn the playoff spot. Then SIU went on the road and upset Weber State 34-31 last week in the first round on an 8-yard pass from Stone Labanowitz to Branson Combs on fourth down with 52 seconds left.

South Dakota State (6-1) is the top seed in the 16-team playoff. The Jackrabbits are led by Naperville native Mark Gronowski, a freshman quarterback who was named Missouri Valley Conference offensive player of the year, freshman of the year and newcomer of the year.

Gronowski hasn't posted crazy passing numbers or anything, with 1,204 passing yards in 7 games. But he's been an effective runner and has thrown just 3 interceptions compared to 11 touchdowns.

Gronowski had a 55-yard run to clinch a victory at North Dakota State and secure the conference championship. One of Gronowski's Neuqua Valley High School teammates, wide receiver Sean Larkin, is on SIU's roster.

"He's an outstanding quarterback, he really is," Hill said of Gronowski. "He's got a bright future ahead of him. Shoot, I hope he doesn't stick around here and use this extra sixth year to break every type of record there is. Seems like a great kid. You like to compete against those type of guys."

One game that stands out for SIU like a sore thumb is the 44-3 loss to South Dakota State in Carbondale March 20. The Jackrabbits rushed for 392 yards that day, including 103 by Gronowski and 150 by running back Isaiah Davis.

"We know what we're up against," Hill said. "Look, they beat us 44-3. There's not much more to say about that. There's no excuses for that. Until we go out there and do something different about it, you are what the score says you are. That's the mentality we'll have. We've got to go out and earn their respect."

SIU has started three different quarterbacks this spring, with Labanowitz settling in the last few weeks. The Salukis' top playmaker is WR Avante Cox, while leading rusher Javon Williams is expected back after missing the Weber State game.

• Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls

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Quarterback Mark Gronowski, a Neuqua Valley graduate, leads South Dakota State against Southern Illinois Sunday night in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs. Daily Herald File Photo
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