3 things we learned: Salukis score late, secure FCS playoff stunner in Round 1

SIU wide receiver Branson Combs (83) hauls in the game-winning touchdown Saturday in the Salukis’ 34-31 first-round playoff victory against Weber State. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

Beating the No. 3 team in the nation on the road in the first round of the FCS playoffs Saturday took everything – and everyone – that No. 14 Southern Illinois had available, including:

  • A quarterback that started the season third on the depth chart.
  • A running back group so banged up that two defensive players practiced at the position during the week.
  • A reserve tight end who didn’t initially travel with the team because of a false positive COVID test.
  • The team’s fourth-leading receiver, who caught three passes in the past month.

With 50 seconds left in the fourth quarter, it was redshirt freshman Branson Combs (the fourth-leading receiver) who made the 8-yard, game-winning touchdown grab on fourth down in the back corner of the end zone from Stone Labanowitz (the third-string QB) to give the No. 14 Salukis (6-3) a 34-31 victory over previously unbeaten Weber State (5-1) in SIU’s first playoff win since 2009.

“I’m really proud of our guys,” SIU head coach Nick Hill said. “I can’t say enough about everybody involved. They earned the right to be in this game.”

The Sallukis earned the win on a play in which top playmaker Avante’ Cox played decoy.

Cox went in motion to the right side of the formation on the game-winning play, drawing a cornerback up to match up with him.

With third-ranked Weber State in man-to-man coverage, that left the 6-foot-3 Combs matched up with linebacker B.J. Taufalele. Labanowitz rolled right and lofted the pass into the back of the end zone, where Combs leaped to make the grab.

“It was some quick decision making in that huddle,” said Hill, who called a time out before the play. “We had another play called and time was running down. … Stone made a great throw. To secure that ball, it was a great catch.”

SIU advances to the NCAA quarterfinals next weekend at South Dakota State, which beat Holy Cross, 31-3, in a first-round game.

Here are three story lines Prairie State Pigskin learned about in SIU’s victory:

  1. All hands on deck in run game

With All-Missouri Valley Football Conference running back Javon Williams Jr. sidelined by a concussion and sophomore Romier Elliott nursing a hamstring injury, the Salukis pieced together a running game that gained 155 yards. That seemed impossible after SIU gained only four yards on the ground in the first quarter.

“We didn’t have any running backs all week,” Hill said. “Justin Strong, he battled (through injury) last week. Romier, he’s not even close to 100%.”

To prepare, SIU moved cornerback Chance Bush and freshman safety Jeffrey Wells to running back. In the end, six different players ran the ball, including three wide receivers. Strong’s 68 yards and Elliott’s 45 gave the Salukis what they needed to prevail.

2. The fake that nearly wasn’t

With 2:31 remaining in the third quarter, SIU kicker Nico Gualdoni lined up for a 20-yard field goal attempt. The result, however, was a bold fake in which the senior threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Cole Steward who was line up near the sideline to the far left of the formation, all alone.

“It’s a play we practice a lot,” Steward said. “It’s something we practiced in fall camp, week one. We go through it every single week.”

Steward nearly never got the chance when he tested positive this week for COVID-19 in Carbondale, despite two other negative tests. While the team was on the plane to Salt Lake City Thursday, Steward called the Illinois state health department and the NCAA for answers.

When the team landed, Steward said the university also went to work to get answer. The test was deemed a false positive, then he tested negative again Friday morning, a day after the rest of the team landed in Utah.

“My girlfriend drove me to St. Louis, and I took a Southwest flight to Salt Lake City,” Steward said with a smile.

3. Defense stands tall … again

Down 14-0 less than 10 minutes into the game and allowing three TDs on Weber State’s first four drives seemed to signal a long day ahead for the SIU defense. What followed, however, was a unit that allowed only 10 points on the Wildcats’ final seven drives.

“We just play hard,” senior linebacker Bryce Notree said. “Anything that happens, we get over it and put it in the past.”

News and notes

Senior cornerbacks James Ceasar and Jonathan Thompson both made interceptions in the end zone of Wildcats quarterback Bronson Barron. … After starting the game 1-for-4, Labanowitz completed 20 of his final 30 passes and finished with 265 yards passing and two TDs. … Cox finished with six catches for 120 yards, his fourth game over 100 receiving yards this spring. … Senior defensive end Anthony Knighton led the Salukis with two tackles for loss. … Notree and fellow linebacker Bryson Strong led the team with eight tackles each. … Saturday’s loss ended Weber State’s 11-game home winning streak. Entering the playoffs, the Wildcats had won 20 of the past 21 games at home.

What’s up next?

SIU will travel to South Dakota State, the top playoff seed in the FCS quarterfinals.

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