Dayton football preview: Flyers prepare for highest-ranked opponent since 2019

The Flyers take the field before their 17-10 win over Eastern Illinois Sept. 11. Photo courtesy of Zach Merz, Flyer News. 

Peter Burtnett | Sports Editor

After a strong defensive showing in a 17-10 win over Eastern Illinois, the Dayton Flyers football team travels to Carbondale, Ill., to face FCS 8th-ranked Southern Illinois on Saturday at 7 p.m.

The 658-day wait that preceded their last game is now completely in the rearview, and now head coach Rick Chamberlin’s team has a regular game week ahead of them, but a highly-ranked team to face.

“First of all, getting a victory over Eastern Illinois was a big plus for us,” Chamberlin said. “For us to be able to do some things well, to build some confidence, and that’s what we’re going to need to do as we’re going into Southern Illinois. (They’re an) outstanding team, you just see in the FCS rankings, they’re (eighth) in the country, and they should be. They’re good enough to be (eighth) or maybe even better.”

For Chamberlin, the approach is to understand that the opponent has some “credentials,” but to approach them as just another opponent.

“That (ranking) gives a little motivation for the guys. Whenever you’re playing a team that is nationally-known, that puts a little more spunk in you as you get ready.”

The biggest challenge for the Flyers is expected to be the high-powered Salukis offense, which is averaging 35 points per game in their 1-1 start (47-21 road win over SEMO, 31-23 road loss to Kansas State, an FBS team). Led by sophomore quarterback Nic Baker, who Chamberlin compares to Flyers senior quarterback Jack Cook, the passing game has accounted for 636 yards and 4 TD. 

“(Baker and Cook are) just playmakers,” Chamberlin said. “They can throw the ball, they can run, they’ll come up with the big play when they need to. They have that natural instinct of a football player, so (viewers) are going to see two of the best quarterbacks in FCS there Saturday night.”

With 8 receptions for 227 yards and a TD, junior wide receiver Avante Cox will be the biggest target for Baker, and a challenge for the Flyers defense, namely redshirt junior Flyer (effectively a nickelback) Zach Rumpke. Rumpke said it will “absolutely” be a challenge to defend the Salukis’ offense.

“Going against that makes us excited as well, because we want to prove people wrong from the past,” Rumpke said. “We haven’t had much success on defense, but now, playing in our last game gave us all of the confidence boost. Just being able to keep a team to such low points… but we’re excited for the challenge (this week).”

On defense, the Salukis have a lot of size, especially with two defensive tackles weighing 300 pounds or more. Redshirt freshman David Tkatch, who made his first collegiate start and played every snap alongside the other four freshman starters, is prepared for the size of SIU.

“They’ve got some big guys up there,” Tkatch said. “We played some big guys last week, so we kind of got a little introduction to that. We’ve just got to keep our techniques and just play how we know how to play and I think we’ll be alright.”

Chamberlin said he doesn’t want or expect to keep the same five players on the offensive line throughout the entirety of this Saturday’s game, but he thought their performance was “fine for the first game.”

The Salukis defense is led by senior middle linebacker Bryce Notree (14 hits, 9 solo tackles, 0.5 TFLs and 0.5 sacks, and 1 pass break-up), and has allowed 26 points, 175 rushing yards, and just 136.5 passing yards per game as a unit through their first two games. 

Cook has thrown for 134 yards (18-32, 56.3 completion percentage) and a TD, and rushed for 46 yards and a TD. Along with junior running back Jake Chisholm (27 attempts for 89 yards, and 9 receptions for 65 yards and a TD), the Flyers offense has the talent to challenge the Salukis. 

Coming off a surprisingly solid performance against Kansas State, even leading 23-21 at halftime, the Salukis present a challenge for the Flyers, but not one they haven’t faced before. Although Chamberlin said the team “can’t rely on what happened in ‘19,” several veteran players remain from the team that beat No. 14 Indiana State 42-35. 

Saturday’s game kicks off from Carbondale, Ill., at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN+. 

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