SIU's Baker's performance stands the test of (over) time in Saluki football history

Southern Illinois quarterback Nic Baker (8) was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference Player of the Week. (photo courtesy SIU Athletics)

Following Saturday’s 42-41 comeback victory over second-ranked South Dakota State, a post-game discussion of the greatest quarterback performances in Southern Illinois football history broke out between longtime radio play-by-play man Mike Reis and head coach Nick Hill.

This naturally followed Saluki sophomore Nic Baker’s performance. Baker completed 28-of-45 passes for 359 yards and four touchdowns as SIU rallied from a 20-0 deficit and pulled out the overtime victory.

In addition, Baker rushed for 46 yards on 12 carries. In short, he kept the chains moving and the Salukis in the game.

The Missouri Valley Football Conference named Baker its offensive player of the week.

Reis, who attended SIU as a student in the 1970s and has broadcast Saluki games for 43 years, put forth Hill — himself a former record-setting SIU quarterback — and Hill’s predecessor Joel Sambursky as top ‘Dawg QBs.

“Look, I don’t know a quarterback that’s played that good in a big-time game in Saluki history,” Hill said of Baker in a Zoom address with the media following his post-game radio appearance.

“That’s just Nic Baker. That’s why we recruited him. Some people have it, and some people don’t. Nic Baker has it.”

‘Crap has to get done’

For Baker, it was all in a day’s work.

“Crap has to get done. That’s what I did. I moved around and tried to find somebody. Do or die, you’ve got to do it,” the redshirt sophomore said in the postgame.

Baker certainly got it done. Along with his teammates, he made big play after big play.

Facing a fourth-and-11 that would have essentially ended the game and SIU’s hopes for victory, Baker made a play for the ages.

Nic Baker

From the SIU 41-yard line, Baker rolled left and eluded South Dakota State defensive end Cade Terveer. The 5-foot-9, 194-pound Baker broke free and then moved right toward the opposite sideline. He then threw a strike to receiver Izaiah Hartrup for an 18-yard gain. The first down kept the Salukis alive.

Baker capped the drive with a 19-yard touchdown throw to senior Landon Lenoir near the left pylon.

“I saw one-on-one (coverage) and they give a lot of the same looks pre-snap and then rotate,” Baker described the play. “I’ve got my eyes on that safety pre-snap and if he doesn’t go over the top and cover him, we’ve got Lando one-on-one and that’s where I’m going. 

“I saw him (Lenoir) get a hand on it, and I didn’t see if he was out (of bounds). I said, ‘Lando, did you get in?’”

Lenoir affirmed that his one-handed snag was indeed a touchdown and the officials confirmed it. Nico Gualdoni’s extra point sent the game to overtime where SIU prevailed.

Two straight overtime thrillers

Saturday’s win marked the second straight week that SIU won an overtime road game. Moreover, both wins came as the Salukis thwarted opponents’ two-point conversion attempts.

“If you want to win a conference championship, you have to beat really hard teams on the road,” Baker said.

This quarterback knows all about winning. Baker led downstate Rochester High School to a pair of state championships. His senior year Baker threw for 3,900 yards and 54 touchdowns (against only two interceptions) as Rochester turned in a 14-0 season.

Yet, many college recruiters passed him over — mainly because of his size. But SIU’s Hill liked what he saw. After Saturday’s performance for the ages, Hill’s admiration has only grown.

“I felt like he took the next step, but he’s gonna be challenged to do it over and over again,” Hill said. “(Baker) made really good decisions in the pocket, of just taking off and running. Last week (against Western Illinois), and we talked about this, he got out of the pocket and could have took off running, but instead he threw a pick.”

There were no interceptions Saturday. The only picks came in the form of lifting SIU to an improbable victory against the nation’s No. 2-ranked team that the Salukis had lost to six straight times, including twice in the spring season.

But back to Reis’s allusion to greatest SIU quarterback performances.

“I had an opportunity to do that one time at Northern Iowa and threw for 400 yards and we got beat. And I threw three interceptions. On the road (No.) 1 versus (No.) 2 and didn’t get it done,” Hill said.

“We’ve had big wins, but I’m talking about a quarterback that put us on his back and picked up fourth downs, third downs.”

And ultimately, an overtime victory that will go down in Saluki history.

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