Satisfied Salukis soak in long-awaited end to FCS playoff drought

Head coach Nick Hill and the Southern Illinois Salukis learned Sunday that they will be among the 16-team FCS playoff field. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

Southern Illinois head football coach Nick Hill chose not to watch Sunday morning’s FCS playoff selection show on ESPNU. But he had plenty of people watching for him.

Walking up the stairs to his office, he got a text from his wife, Alicia, about the first matchup that was announced.

“My wife texted me something about Holy Cross getting in. She was mad about that,” Hill said. “They’re an automatic qualifier (as Patriot League champion). She doesn’t get that.”

When his wife called moments later, Hill expected to have to deliver a lesson about the pairings.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to have to explain to her what (an automatic qualifier) is,’” he said.

As he answered the call, “she’s just screaming that we’re in. By that time, I was close to our offices and I could hear people screaming down the hallways.”

The screams from his wife and staff members were a welcome sound. For the first time since 2009, SIU is a playoff team.

The 18th-ranked Salukis (5-3) were selected, according to the ESPNU broadcast, as one of the last two teams to make this spring’s unique 16-team field and will travel to No. 3 Weber State (5-0) for a first-round game at 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 24.

In 2019, SIU was left out after posting a 7-5 record and a five-game winning streak against Missouri Valley Football Conference foes.

“It’s a good feeling,” Hill said Sunday. “In 2019, we had the exact opposite feeling. I’m excited that we get to keep going and that this story isn’t over yet.”

After learning of SIU’s selection, Hill admitted that he was overtaken by the gravity of the achievement.

“Honestly, at that point, I got kind of emotional hugging (cornerbacks coach) Marty Rogers,” said Hill, a former SIU quarterback. “We’ve been here for five years. We played together. It’s been a long time coming to see our name put up there as a program.”

On Saturday, SIU capped its spring season with a 55-48 victory against No. 17 Southeastern Louisiana in a non-conference game that was planned after Illinois State and Western Illinois – two scheduled opponents for SIU – opted out during the season.

“Looking at it now, that (Southeastern Louisiana game) put us in the playoffs,” SIU senior linebacker Bryce Notree said. “I couldn’t sleep last night. I was tossing and turning in the bed all night, thinking about what could happen.”

The addition of Saturday’s game and beating regional rival Southeast Missouri in the fall certainly paid dividends for the Salukis.

FCS playoff committee chairman Kyle Moats, Missouri State’s athletic director, noted the difficulty of comparing teams that played a handful of games against those who played more robust schedules.

“That was our toughest chore,” Moats said on the ESPNU telecast. “Certainly if the committee could see more games being played, I think it helped evaluate those particular institutions.”

The same went for non-conference games during a spring in which many leagues played conference-only schedules.

“We didn’t have a lot of data from non-conference games that we usually do,” he said. “Any of those non-conference games that we were able to (watch) certainly was a big help.”

After being left out of the field in 2019, senior offensive lineman ZeVeyon Furcron said at the time all he could do was cry. On Sunday, he couldn’t help but feel grateful.

“To see our name up there was a feeling we haven’t experienced,” Furcron said. “It’s a feeling I can’t describe.”

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