Kansas State football has good reason not to sleep on Week 2 opponent Southern Illinois

Last year's loss to Arkansas State a stark reminder for K-State

Arne Green
Topeka Capital-Journal

MANHATTAN — Forgive Chris Klieman if he doesn't view Kansas State's matchup against Southern Illinois through the lens of a typical Power Five coach weighing the perils of facing a respected FCS opponent.

He's been there, done that.

And, more importantly, he has seen it up close from both sidelines.

Nobody has to convince Klieman, whose Wildcats entertain SIU in their 6 p.m. home-opener Saturday at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, that true nonconference guarantee games have become increasingly rare.

In other words: Gimme games aren't really gimme games anymore.

"I just think there's a lot of parity in college football and there's a lot of good football teams out there," Klieman said, citing last week's six FBS losses to FCS opponents. "There were a number of games that probably could have been won by FCS teams as well. Being at that level for a while myself, those are big games and big opportunities to make a statement and prove that you belong with the Power Five schools."

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Kansas State Wildcats wide receiver Malik Knowles (4) remains face down on the field after an incomplete pass last year against Arkan were upset, 35-31, but the FCS Red Wolves.

In fact, Klieman won four FCS national titles in five years as head coach at North Dakota State, which, like SIU, is a member of the Missouri Valley Football Conference. During that time, the Bison won twice against the FBS: a 34-14 victory over Iowa State in his 2014 head coaching debut and a 23-21 triumph over No. 11-ranked Iowa in 2016.

Klieman also experienced what it was like when the tables were turned and K-State dropped last year's season-opener, 35-31, to Arkansas State, a member of the Group of Five's Sun Belt Conference.

It was that 2020 loss, more than any other Week 1 scores from around the country this year, that resonated with Wildcat players in preparation for SIU. It's one thing when it happens to other teams, but the Arkansas State game struck a nerve.

"That game is in the back of my head and will probably be forever," senior linebacker Ryan Henington said. "I know that Southern Illinois knows that they could win this game and they think that.

"For them, it might be their Super Bowl, but for me and our team, it's the biggest game we've played up to this point. So we're not overlooking that. We're excited to play them."

SIU (1-0, No. 8 in the latest FCS poll) racked up 553 yards total of offense last week in a 47-21 rout of Southeast Missouri State, with sophomore quarterback Nic Baker throwing for 460 yards and four touchdowns.

K-State opened its season last week by dominating Stanford, 24-7, in Arlington, Texas. But the Arkansas State game — and remember, K-State came back two weeks later to stun No. 3-ranked Oklahoma on the road last year — remains a cautionary tale.

"We don't want to have that same outcome during the (SIU) game, so we're just going to prepare like it's the Big 12 championship or any big game," junior wide receiver Malik Knowles said.

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Kansas State coach Chris Klieman walks off the field after the Wildcats' 35-31 upset loss to Arkansas State in last year's season opener at Bill Snyder Family Football Stadium.

The opening loss also served as a reminder for super-senior quarterback Skylar Thompson, who started both the Arkansas State and Oklahoma games before suffering a season-ending injury the following week against Texas Tech.

"Yeah, tremendously. Looking at Southern Illinois and the conference that they play in, the Missouri Valley, you look at the scores from last week," he said, referencing South Dakota State's victory over Colorado State and single-digit losses by Northern Iowa against Iowa State (16-10) and Missouri State to Oklahoma State (23-16). "Everybody was competitive.

"It's a competitive conference that's the real deal. What we were talking about is just watching (SIU) on film and it's a team full of Briley Moores. Guys that have chips on their shoulders that are talented players that have something to prove."

Klieman also held up Moore, a graduate transfer tight end from Northern Iowa who was K-State's second-leading receiver last year, as an example.

"Briley Moore was a really good football player for us last year, and you get a bunch of guys like Briley Moore on your football team, you have a chance to win because of the belief that they have," Klieman said. "Southern Illinois is no different.

"Nick (Hill, sixth-year SIU head coach) has done a tremendous job there, so it'll be a really good football game."

Under Hill, SIU went 6-4 last spring and advanced to the FCS playoffs, beating No. 3 Weber State on the road before falling to No. 2 South Dakota State in the quarterfinals. The Salukis also upset No. 1-ranked North Dakota State during the regular season.

So, unlike his players, when Klieman was asked if the Arkansas State game served as either a reminder or motivator for the Wildcats this week, he almost looked amused.

"I never even thought about that until you brought it up," he said. "It's just I think all of our staff — or a majority of our staff — having spent some time in FCS, in particular that league, the Missouri Valley, (knows it) is a really good league."