In the end, a battle of nationally ranked teams that also made the spring playoffs was decided by a pair of kickers.
One — SIU’s Nico Gualdoni — made his field goal attempt, while the other — North Dakota’s Brady Stevens — missed his.
That difference resulted in Southern’s 31-28 triumph over the Fighting Hawks in Missouri Valley action at Saluki Stadium.
The win improved SIU to 6-1 overall and 4-0 in the Missouri Valley.
The Salukis retained their grip on first place, tied with 3-0 North Dakota State, heading into a bye week with four games left in the regular season.
No. 22-ranked North Dakota slipped to 2-4 overall and 0-3 in the conference.
Here are three things that Prairie State Pigskin learned from Saturday’s game.
- Kickers continue to matter when it matters most
Gualdoni has been solid for most of the season. The senior who grew up in nearly Johnston City provided the winning margin Saturday when he nailed a 46-yard field goal with 5:14 remaining.
Gualdoni has made 8-of-11 field goal attempts this season. Saturday’s game-winner was a career-long kick.
“I was kicking with the wind, so I wasn’t worried about distance, just kicking it straight,” Gualdoni said afterward.
North Dakota had a chance to send the game to overtime. However, Stevens missed wide right on a 47-yard field as time expired.
“We’ve been streaky on offense where we score and move the ball in bunches,” Hill said. “Whatever each game holds, ultimately we have to win the game.”
2. No lead is safe
SIU raced away to a 21-0 lead and seemed on the verge of a laugher. Perhaps the Salukis should have learned from last week, or maybe even two weeks ago.
After falling behind 20-0 at then No. 2-rated South Dakota State seven days ago, SIU rallied for a thrilling overtime win.
On Oct. 2 the Salukis built a 24-10 lead at Western Illinois, only to see the Leathernecks rally and force overtime. SIU prevailed 31-30 after stopping a two-point conversion.
A similar pattern developed Saturday as North Dakota rallied to tie the game at halftime.
The Fighting Hawks scored twice in the final minute of the first half. Tommy Schuster threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Adam Zavalney, and then SIU’s Nic Baker was intercepted on the ensuing drive, leading to a Schuster to Boltmann 2-yard TD pass with just two seconds remaining.
“If you’re a Saluki football fan, I think that you’ve gotten your money’s worth as far as close games,” SIU head coach Nick Hill joked in the postgame. “I know we’re better for it. Our team has learned what it takes to win close games and understand the detail that it takes.”
Gualdoni said, “(Being) 4-0 is definitely a good feeling, especially after these last three games that we’ve had came down to the wire.”
3. Bye week comes at a good time
After three straight weeks of down-to-the-wire finishes, Hill’s Salukis have time to regroup and refresh.
“The type of games we’ve played in is taxing on your body, your mind, mentally — but like I told our guys last night, there’s more in us,” Hill said.
Senior receiver Landon added, “Coach Hill made a point about the Marines, the Navy Seals — how hard they train. When you think you’re done, your body still has a lot more to give. I think our team relied on that message.”
News & notes
The Salukis are off to their best start since 2009 . . . according to siusalukis.com, Saturday’s homecoming game marked the highest-grossing regular-season gate in school history in terms of ticket sales . . . The announced attendance was 10,644 . . . SIU QB Nic Baker finished the day 13-of-16 for 177 yards, three TDs and an interception. Baker was sacked four times . . . freshman receiver Izaiah Hartrup led the Salukis with four catches for 91 yards . . . SIU was credited with nine pass breakups and five quarterback hurries in the game. The Salukis did not record a sack . . . North Dakota has lost three MVFC games by single digits . . . Both teams had key players out of the game with injuries including running back Otis Weah for UND and receiver Avante Cox for SIU.
SIU returns to its Missouri Valley schedule with a game at at Northern Iowa Oct. 30.