With South Dakota State and Southern Illinois facing off for the third time in less than seven months, perhaps it made perfect sense that Saturday’s Missouri Valley Football Conference matchup would produce a wild result. But this wild?
Last March South Dakota State throttled SIU 44-3 in Carbondale. Then, in the FCS playoffs, the Jackrabbits rallied for a 31-26 victory in Brookings, S.D. SDSU rushed for over 600 yards in those two victories.
No. 2-ranked South Dakota State went to the air Saturday and built a 20-0 lead over SIU midway through the second quarter. Then things turned. Really turned.
SIU rallied for an improbable 42-41 overtime win that the Salukis will recount for years to come.
SIU, ranked No. 7 in the STATS Perform FCS poll and No. 8 in the coaches poll, improved to 5-1 overall and 3-0 in the MVFC. The Jackrabbits dipped to 4-1 overall and 2-1 in the conference.
The Salukis were asked if they had ever been a part of a crazier game in their careers; the answers echoed one another.
“Ah, no, that’s obviously a big-time win,” said former SIU quarterback-turned head coach Nick Hill.
Quarterback Nic Baker said, “No way. I’ve played in some pretty crazy games in high school, even ISU and Western were pretty crazy, but a Top 10 matchup that we went down 20-0. I’m sure a couple of people that were even our fans were counting us out . . . it’s crazy.”
Running back Donnovan Spencer said, “Ah no, and I’ve played in some crazy games. This is definitely one of the most memorable.”
Here are three things Prairie State Pigskin learned from Saturday’s Saluki victory:
1. Big plays brought the Salukis back
Down 20-0, the Southern Illinois offense awoke with a 61-yard touchdown pass from Baker to senior Jerron Rollins at the 7:54 mark of the second quarter.
The Saluki defense then delivered a key turnover. Pressured by the SIU rush, SDSU quarterback Chris Oladokun was intercepted by freshman linebacker Jakari Patterson that set the Salukis up at the SDSU 30-yard line.
Baker then stepped up in the pocket and found senior Landon Lenoir wide open in the middle of the end zone. It was Lenoir’s sixth TD of the season.
After SIU scored those two quick touchdowns to pull to within a touchdown, South Dakota State appeared set to answer after a pooch kickoff and 27-yard gain on first down.
However, the Saluki defense stiffened and forced a 45-yard field goal attempt that missed badly wide left. SDSU led 20-14 at halftime.
Freshman Zach Gibson made a leaping TD catch over an SDSU defender with 10:38 left in the game to pull SIU within seven points. Gibson, the son of former Notre Dame and Pittsburgh Steeler Oliver Gibson, had just one catch coming into the game.
After an 85-yard TD run by South Dakota State’s Pierre Strong, the Salukis scored on a 63-yard dash by Spencer. That translated to three scores in one minute of playing time.
A field goal block by SIU’s Anthony Knighton set up the next dramatic play.
It was again Lenoir’s moment. The senior from Crete hauled in a spectacular one-handed TD catch in the corner of the end zone by the pylon with only 34 seconds remaining. Nico Gualdoni’s extra point forced overtime.
But, Lenoir’s TD would never have happened had Baker not converted a fourth-and-11 play that could have ended the game with SDSU on top.
“Look, I don’t know a quarterback that’s played that good in a big-time game in Saluki history,” Hill said.
2. Overtime heroics
Playing in its second straight overtime game following a 31-30 win at Western Illinois a week ago, SIU went on offense first.
Spencer, a transfer from Western Carolina, took a handoff and burst 10 yards up the middle thanks to key interior blocks and sprinted into the end zone.
“It was a check call. He (Baker) checked it to the run,” Spencer said. “Once I saw the daylight, I took it.”
Spencer, who had no first half carries, finished with 103 yards on 10 carries and two touchdowns.
South Dakota State answered in two plays. Oladokun found tight end Tucker Kraft in the middle of the end zone for a touchdown.
Then came SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier’s decision to go for the two-point conversion for the win.
Again, Oladokun threw for the middle of the end zone. However, this time SIU freshman linebacker Branson Combs broke up the pass in tight coverage.
“In the spring he (Combs) was playing offense, caught a touchdown, so now he’s making a big play on defense,” Hill said.
3. Red zone miscues
SIU can directly point to a pair of red zone miscues in third quarter that caused Hill major concern.
“We had a lot of things on the (play) card. We tried a little bit of everything,” Hill said after his team faced similar issues in the spring quarterfinal game.
The first came after the Salukis had moved the ball from their own nine-yard line off a Clayton Bush interception to the South Dakota State 1.
SIU appeared to have settled for a field goal putting the Salukis to within three points at 20-17. However, a penalty on SDSU for an illegal formation gave Hill a decision to make.
The SIU head coach chose to take the field goal off the board and instead put his offense back out. Then came one of the most bizarre plays in recent years.
Javon Williams Jr. began the play split to the left and then motioned back in toward Baker. Williams Jr. took the handoff and broke to the right. The play appeared to be designed for the sophomore — a former QB himself — to throw the ball back to Baker who broke for the end zone. However, SDSU had Baker well covered.
Thus, Williams Jr. pulled the ball down and began breaking tackles at the 10, weaving his way toward the end zone. Near the one-yard line, Williams Jr. leaped for the goal line, was pinwheeled and fumbled.
SDSU defensive back Malik Lofton scooped up the loose ball and sprinted 97 yards down the sideline for a Jackrabbit touchdown. Following a successful two-point conversion, SDSU grabbed a 28-14 lead.
“I’m the one who called the play,” Hill said. “No one felt like they were punched in the gut more than me.”
Later in the third quarter, the Salukis again moved the ball inside the SDSU five. A false start moved SIU back and then Baker’s fourth-down pass intended for Spencer in the flat was batted down at the line of scrimmage.
News & notes
Baker completed 28-of-45 passes for 359 yards and four touchdowns . . . Lenoir had 10 catches for 147 yards and two TDs . . . SIU played without star receiver Avante Cox (seen on the sidelines in a sling) and center Calvin Francis, while SDSU was missing defensive back Don Gardner, an Illinois native . . . Romeir Elliott returned to the SIU lineup after playing in just one game prior to Saturday due to injury. Following a fumble, Elliott did not have any more carries . . . senior left guard ZeVeyon Furcron made his 39th straight start for the Salukis . . . The win snapped a six-game SIU losing streak to South Dakota State . . . Southern’s first 14 plays produced just 20 yards (three punts and a fumble). SIU’s next 14 plays gained 129 yards and two touchdowns . . . Pierre Strong rushed 20 times for 162 yards and two touchdowns . . . The teams combined for more than 1,100 yards of total offense, with the Jackrabbits holding a narrow 559-546 lead.
SIU returns home for a conference game Saturday, Oct. 16 against North Dakota.