Following big win, Liberty begins daunting four-game road swing vs. S. Illinois

(STATS) – Coming off one of the biggest wins in school history, Liberty sounds like a program that knows it can’t dwell on the afterglow of a game that propelled it into the national spotlight.

It still might want to take a mental snapshot of what things looked like at Williams Stadium after last week’s 31-21 win over then-No. 7 Montana – because it won’t see such an inviting atmosphere for a while.

Saturday’s matchup with Southern Illinois is the first of four road games in as many Saturdays for the Flames, an unusual test for anyone and an especially daring one for a team that just cracked the top 10 in the FCS coaches poll – along with the STATS FCS poll – for the first time since 1990.

"I’m excited to see how our team steps up," quarterback Josh Woodrum said. "I think our leadership is going to be big these next four weeks. This is the closest team I’ve been a part of, and with road games you want a close team just to be able to move through whatever problems may come."

For his part, Woodrum’s coach isn’t thinking beyond the Salukis.

"We’re going to do it like we always do it," Turner Gill said. "It’s game by game. If you look at it more than that, we’re in trouble."

By Woodrum’s own admission, the Flames (2-1) have their guard up after their showdown with Montana. A year ago, Liberty recorded an impressive nonconference win over Bryant and hit the road to play another school from the Missouri Valley Conference seven days later. The hangover was evident in a 38-19 loss to Indiana State.

"They caught us in a sleeper game," Woodrum said. "We’d just come off a big win and thought we’d go in there and do whatever we wanted and they schemed us well and ended up beating us.

"We’re definitely going to have to focus up this week and understand each game is a different game. I think we will this year."

That result against an MVC team may have been warning enough, but the Flames have another reason not to be overconfident heading to Carbondale. Oddsmakers installed Southern Illinois as a five-point favorite to open the week, a number that’s since dropped as low as 2 1/2.

Not that Woodrum is paying a whole lot of attention to what Las Vegas thinks.

"If you looked at what was supposed to happen last week, you’d probably have seen that Montana was going to beat us," said Woodrum, who enters this week needing 208 offensive yards to become Liberty’s all-time leader. "We don’t worry about that sort of thing."

What the Flames might need to agonize over is the Salukis’ offense. Southern Illinois has averaged 564.0 yards through two games, sixth in the FCS, and a majority of that damage has come through the air. Mark Iannotti has completed 72.5 percent of his passes for 705 yards and six touchdowns.

Four came in SIU’s 48-47 defeat to Indiana on Sept. 5, but Iannotti was intercepted three times in a last-second 27-24 loss to Southeast Missouri State the following week. The Salukis had seven turnovers against the Redhawks and nine in their first two games, leaving an 0-2 mark for a team that’s had a bye week to dwell on how it’s deserved better.

"The numbers speak for themselves. We’re having success," coach Dale Lennon said. "Look at our numbers offensively and defensively; it’s not hard to find success within our program.

"What’s frustrating is when you’re minus-9 in the turnover ratio. The confidence factor is not a situation where we don’t think we’re capable of playing with anybody. We’ve just got to take care of the football. We’ve got to make sure we’re not our own worst enemy."

Lennon’s team figures to have enough problems dealing with Chima Uzowihe. The senior defensive end set the Big South career sack record against Montana by upping his total to 22 1/2, with 5 1/2 coming in the first three games of 2015 – nearly 40 percent of Liberty’s FCS high-tying 14 sacks.

"He’s got a few more things in his repertoire. He’s gotten a little bit stronger," Gill said. "He’s always been a quick guy. Now add a little more strength and that keeps tackles a little off balance when he’s able to pass rush."