In Carbondale, Sundays are workdays for the Southern Illinois football team.
The work that the Salukis put in six days ago, according to head coach Nick Hill, paid massive dividends in the team’s Missouri Valley Football Conference home opener Saturday – a 38-14 demolition of defending national champion and No. 1 North Dakota State that halted the FCS powerhouse’s 39-game winning streak.
Just as stunning was the fact that SIU (2-1) pulled off the win a week after stumbling to a 44-21 loss at North Dakota, which Hill termed a major disappointment.
“It was a long trip,” he said of the defeat in Grand Forks, N.D. “We got right back to work on Sunday. These guys really showed up with some resiliency. They were willing to watch and learn from their mistakes. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
SIU’s offense outgained the Bison, 443-268, and piled up 25 first downs compared to only 12 for NDSU.
Trailing 17-0 late in the first half, NDSU completed a 37-yard Hail Mary pass to end the half. SIU responded with 21 unanswered second-half points to take control of the game and hand NDSU its first loss since Nov. 4, 2017.
“We’re gonna enjoy this thing,” Hill said. “This game will be remembered for a long time as maybe the biggest win in that stadium.”
- Rochester’s finest
High school teammates Avante Cox, a junior wide receiver, and Nic Baker, a sophomore quarterback, were spectacular for the Salukis. The Rochester (Ill.) High School products were part of a high-powered offense that included 17-for-23 passing and 254 yards for Baker in his first career start filling in for injured starter Kare’ Lyles.
Last week against North Dakota, Baker threw two interceptions in the defeat. Against NDSU, he did not turn the ball over. “For his first start ever, that’s a big win for him,” Hill said.
Cox caught seven passes for 138 yards and continued to wow his head coach. “He might be the best skill player in the country,” Hill said. “He plays extremely hard.”
- Run game revs up
A week after rushing for only 90 yards against North Dakota, the Salukis pounded away at NDSU for 178 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.
Sophomore Romier Elliott led all rushers with 89 yards and scored twice, while fellow sophomore Javon Williams Jr. added 40 yards and two scores.
- Winning up front
Along with its offensive line leading the way on 48 run plays, the SIU defensive front allowed only 109 rushing yards. The NDSU total was aided by a late fourth-quarter run of 63 yards by Jalen Bussey.
“There’s not a lot of teams that control the line of scrimmage against North Dakota State,” Hill said. “If you can run the football, you can do a lot of things (on offense). Besides two plays, we dominated the football game.”
What’s up next?
SIU travels to Youngstown State for an 11 a.m. kickoff on Saturday, March 6. The game will be aired on either ESPN3 or ESPN+ online.