3 things we learned: No. 7 Salukis rev up offense after sputtering through 1st half

SIU running back Justin Strong celebrates his fourth-quarter touchdown catch in Saturday’s home win against Illinois State. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

CARBONDALE – A parade of 26 motorcyles roared into Saluki Stadium on Saturday, loudly bringing fans to their feet and leading the SIU football team onto the field for its Missouri Valley Football Conference opener against Illinois State.

After the raucous welcome, however, SIU needed more than 35 minutes to get into gear.

When they did, the No. 7 Salukis hit the gas, revved up their offense and scored 35 unanswered points to rumble past the Redbirds, 35-17.

The Salukis trailed, 17-0, in the third quarter and managed only two first downs in the first half against a stingy ISU defense.

“I’d be disappointed if we didn’t have a resilient team,” SIU head coach Nick Hill said. “We have a team that’s been through a lot – ups and downs and losses. That’s an attitude thing.

“It’s easy when it’s 55-3 (against Dayton) and everybody has a good attitude. But what about when it’s 17-0 and it’s in the second half and it’s like, ‘Man, we gotta go now?’”

Down by three scores with just over 3 minutes elapsed in the third quarter, SIU used a 70-yard kickoff return from wide receiver Izaiah Hartrup as its now moment.

That was followed by a nifty 16-yard connection from quarterback Nic Baker to wide receiver Avante Cox two plays later to extend the drive. After another first down, Baker scrambled and squeezed a ball to wide receiver Landon Lenoir in the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown.

“I saw (Baker) scramble,” Lenoir said. “I just turned up the field. As soon as I turned my head, the ball was there.”

Lenoir made the catch with a defender and Cox in close proximity.

“I saw the other hands, and I just tried to snag it away,” Lenoir said. “I didn’t know if it was a defender or my teammate.”

In a span of 8 minutes, 8 seconds of game time beginning in the final minute of the third quarter, SIU (3-1 overall, 1-0 MVFC) used a 40-yard touchdown run from Donnovan Spencer, a 2-yard scoring rush from Javon Williams Jr. and a 17-yard scoring pass from Baker to running back Justin Strong to forge a 28-17 lead.

“Not everything’s going to go your way,” Hartrup said of the comeback. “That’s the game of football. Coach (Hill) preaches to us that no matter what adversity comes, we’re all going to stick together and keep pushing.”

Here are three things Prairie State Pigskin learned about the Southern Illinois victory:

  1. A stop that led to go time

The SIU defense also did its part in the comeback, holding ISU scoreless for the final 27:08, sparked by a fourth-down stop at the SIU 6-yard line.

Illinois State had driven 69 yards in eight plays after the first Saluki touchdown and handed the ball off to running back Cole Mueller on fourth-and-1. SIU defensive end Richie Hagerty chased down the play from behind and forced a turnover on downs.

“It was desperation mode right there,” Hill said of his team trailing 17-7. “We knew they weren’t throwing it. Somebody’s got to get off a block. Our guys stepped up and made the stop.”

2. All hands on deck

Baker completed 66% of his passes (21-for-32) and passed for two touchdowns in the second half. He was part of an offense that got contributions from four different running backs and six different receivers in the victory.

In the MVFC schedule ahead, Hill said depth will play a major factor.

“It’s going to be the difference between winning and losing games down the stretch,” he said.

While Lenoir and Hartrup had seven catches each – including a one-handed, highlight-reel grab and run for 47 yards in the fourth quarter – SIU’s run game got a boost from Western Carolina transfer Donnovan Spencer, who had a 40-yard TD run during the rally and rushed for a team-high 69 yards. Running back/wildcat QB Javon Williams Jr. had scoring runs of 2 and 3 yards.

3. Spring recall

Leading up to the game, SIU head coach Nick Hill downplayed any leftover emotions from the spring season, when Illinois State opted out halfway through the season, causing the Salukis to scramble to adjust their schedule.

“They (ISU) don’t care about that. We don’t care about that,” Hill said during his weekly press conference last week. “That spring season is over.”

The SIU athletics social media team apparently hasn’t forgotten, however.

After Saturday’s victory, the SIU football Twitter account tweeted the final score with the message, “Anybody. Anywhere. Anytime.”

In February, Illinois State’s football Twitter account posted a video of Brock Spack walking to the middle of Hancock Stadium in Normal with the same exact message. The video was shared just days after Missouri State postponed a game with ISU because of a severe winter storm, a decision that Spack criticized.

In March, the Redbirds opted out midway through the spring FCS season, drawing the ire of SIU and Missouri State, which both lost ISU from their schedule.

Up next for Illinois State this fall is an Oct. 2 home game against Missouri State.

Surely the folks in Springfield, Mo., have forgotten about the spring, when the Bears’ schedule was impacted by ISU opting out.

Or not.

What’s next?

The Salukis travel to Macomb for an MVFC game against Western Illinois. Kickoff is 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 2.

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