If there is one thing that Delaware coach K.C. Keeler is keeping in full view of his football team, it's his national championship ring from 2003.

"They get a peek at the ring every now and then," Keeler said a few days ago. "They'd love to have one of those on their hand. The reality is that if you win a national championship, it's immortality. It's something no one can ever take away from you. I think they understand that."

The Blue Hens (10-3) can take one more step toward the ultimate piece of jewelry today when they meet Southern Illinois (12-1) in the semifinals of the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) playoffs in Carbondale, Ill. The game at McAndrew Stadium will be shown on ESPN.

Coincidentally, the Hens defeated the Salukis in a first-round game on their way to the 2003 national championship. They also knocked out Northern Iowa that year, the team they eliminated, 39-27, last Saturday on the road.

Keeler said he was drawing on his experiences from 2003 in his preparation.

"You try to get them to understand that on Sunday at 2 o'clock, we're meeting," he said. "Either we're collecting the equipment or moving on to the next round. So at practice, they have to understand the finality of it to make sure they're as focused as they can be. Then, when you get to the game, just enjoy the experience."

The Blue Hens have had much enjoyment this season watching their two offensive aces, quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Omar Cuff, both seniors.

Flacco is a former star at Audubon High in Camden County who scouts figure will be taken by the third round of the NFL draft. He ranks 10th in the nation in total offense and has passed for 3,686 yards and 20 touchdowns, while giving up just five interceptions.

Cuff leads the nation with 38 touchdowns - 34 on the ground - and has rushed for 1,759 yards.

The game matches teams ranked in the top 10 of scoring and yardage nationally. Southern Illinois averages 39.4 points (fourth) and 453.2 offensive yards (ninth). The Blue Hens average 38.6 points (eighth) and 467.1 total yards (fourth).

So a key could be defense. The Salukis are 10th in the nation in points allowed at 17.1.

The Blue Hens have had a shorter week than normal. An ice storm in Iowa left them stranded, and they didn't arrive home until Monday afternoon.

"We got a little bit of a feel for what they're all about watching the Northern Iowa tape," Keeler said. "There's a lot of crossover in what Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois do."

The Salukis advanced with a 34-27 win over visiting Massachusetts.

Two-time defending champion Appalachian State (12-3) routed Richmond, 55-35, last night as quarterback Armanti Edwards rushed for 313 yards and four touchdowns and threw for 182 yards and three scores.

Richmond finished 11-3.