Piling up style points wasn’t a concern for Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill.
“I don’t think we played our prettiest football,” he said Saturday night after a 31-30 overtime victory in Macomb against Western Illinois.
But the Salukis (4-1), ranked seventh in the nation, came up with a beautiful stop on a two-point conversion attempt in overtime by WIU to thwart the Leathernecks and improve to 2-0 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
“We played team football,” Hill said. “I’m proud of the guys. They continued to find ways (to win). I’ve been saying all week that I think Western’s got a good football team.”
After senior wide receiver Landon Lenoir hauled in a 25-yard scoring pass on the first play of overtime to put SIU ahead, 31-24, the Leathernecks (1-4) answered on a 25-yard Myles Wanza TD run.
WIU attempted a game-winning two-point conversion when quarterback Connor Sampson threw a swing pass behind the line of scrimmage to wide receiver Dennis Houston, who entered the game as the national leader in receptions per game.
SIU freshman Jakari Patterson read the play, tackled Houston and sent the Salulkis home victorious.
“I recognized it instantly,” Patterson told the media after the game. “This is not going to be a run, so I aborted what I was supposed to do, read the man and made the play.”
SIU survived despite scoring only three points in the second half.
Kicker Nico Gualdoni of Johnson City lined up to attempt a game-winning field goal from 40 yards out with 10 seconds left, but SIU was flagged for a false start.
After moving back five yards, Gualdoni had plenty of distance on the kick but it sailed wide left.
“He probably makes it (from 40),” Hill said. “I have a lot of confidence in Nico. I thought he struck it good (from 45). He just didn’t make it.”
Here are three things Prairie State Pigskin learned about the Southern Illinois victory:
- Offense rides the rollercoaster
SIU’s offense got off to a blazing hot start, going up 14-0 in the first quarter when Lenoir caught a 32-yard TD pass from quarterback Nic Baker, then the Saluki QB ran for a nine-yard score.
Baker started 6-for-7 passing for 90 yards and a TD.
The Salukis went up 21-0, thanks to scoring drives of 90, 70 and 28 yards.
After completing 12 of his first 15 passes, Baker connected on only seven of his next 19 attempts and had an interception returned for a touchdown that helped Western close the gap to 21-10 aft halftime. He was also sacked five times by the Leathernecks, who entered the game with only one sack in its previous four games.
The Salukis’ normally reliable run game put up only 51 yards in the game – at 1.6 yards per carry.
“We should’ve gotten to some screen (passes) earlier in the game,” Hill said. “They were huge for us.”
Western put plenty of heat on Baker in the second half, especially from its secondary.
“They were bringing safety pressure,” Hill said. “They got momentum. It’s hard to run against that.”
Lenoir, who drew three pass interference penalties against WIU defenders, finished with five catches for 103 yards and two TDs.
“It feels good to get a win,” he told Saluki Radio Network. “It was a tough one. I’m just happy we got the win. We just emphasized being a four-quarter team. Today it took five quarters.”
2. Tale of two defensive halves
Despite the close call, Hill credited his team’s first-half defense with slowing down the potent WIU passing attack, which entered the game ranked No. 12 in the nation.
“I thought the first half defense was phenomenal,” he said. “They had 96 total yards. We really didn’t let anything behind us.”
Linebacker Bryce Notree’s interception in the first half set up a touchdown, and fellow linebacker Makel Calhoun made a team-high 10 tackles. Both players had one of four SIU sacks on the day.
In the second half, Sampson completed 12 of his final 14 pass attempts, which included two TDs.
“Against (No. 6) Eastern Washington, they scored 56 points on them,” Hill said of WIU’s 62-56 loss. “They don’t flinch. This quarterback (Sampson) can get going. He’s a really good player. No. 10 (Houston) might be one of the best wide receivers (in the country. No. 1 (wide receiver Tony Tate) is electric.”
3. Injuries cause concern
After being heavily involved in the offense during the first quarter, All-American wide receiver Avante Cox left the game with an apparent left arm injury. Saluki Radio Network reported that Cox had his arm in a sling on the sidelines.
Cox was replaced in the lineup by freshman Zach Gibson of Romeoville, who made one catch for nine yards. That catch was at a crucial time, however, coming on a third-and-7 play in the fourth quarter.
In the second quarter, starting center Calvin Francis Jr. left the game with a knee injury and did not return. He was replaced by sophomore Jimmy Wormsley, who saw the first significant playing time of his career. Wormsley is a graduate of Jacobs High School in Algonquin.
Hill noted after the game that senior wide receiver Jerron Rollins also missed time with an undisclosed injury.
When asked about Cox and Francis, Hill said he didn’t know how serious the injuries could be.
“Both don’t look to good, initially, but we’ll have to see what the trainers say when we get back to Carbondale,” he said.
News and notes
Lenoir drew two second-half pass interference calls in the second half with former Saluki and current Leatherneck Shawntrez Spates defending him. “It was a friendly competition,” Lenoir said. “He was just a little aggressive, but it was fun out there. That’s my friend. We’re great brothers.” … The game was delayed by lightning for 49 minutes. … Baker finished 26-for-43 for 240 yards. … Gualdoni moved into the top 10 all-time in scoring at SIU with his four PATs and 37-yard field goal on the day. … Nine different SIU players caught a pass in the victory, including four by Rollins and running back Donnovan Spencer and three by Cox, including a one-handed grab on a crossing route in the first quarter. … Linebacker Bryce Notree had six tackles. His first-quarter interception of Sampson set up the Salukis’ first TD.
The Salukis travel to Brookings, S.D., for an MVFC game against South Dakota State on Saturday, Oct. 9. The game kicks off at 2 p.m. against the Jackrabbits, who beat Southern twice last season, including in the spring FCS playoffs.