The Southern Illinois football team went back to move forward.
The Salukis, who got as high as No. 3 in the national polls a month ago only to struggle down stretch, returned to early-season form and produced a workmanlike 22-10 victory in Saturday’s opening round of the FCS playoffs.
SIU (8-4) moved into next weekend’s second round with a 22-10 win over South Dakota (7-5). The Salukis will face No. 2 overall seed North Dakota State Saturday, Dec. 4 in Fargo.
“I’m just so proud of this team, really that’s an understatement,” SIU head coach Nick Hill said in the postgame. “(With) the tough loss last week (35-18 to Youngstown State on Senior Day), this just speaks to the character (of our players).”
Defensive end Jordan Berner said, “This is huge. It’s been a tough last month (losing three of four games). We’ve faced a lot of adversity and for us to come on the road in the first round of the playoffs and get a W is big.”
Here are three things Prairie State Pigskin learned from Saturday’s SIU win.
- An old passing combination returns
SIU quarterback Nic Baker and receiver Avante Cox have made connections since their days leading Rochester High School to an Illinois state championship. The duo has continued its success for the Salukis and added another chapter Saturday at the DakotaDome in Vermillion, SD.
Baker targeted Cox 11 times, connecting 10 times for 148 yards and touchdown. Baker finished 21-of-30 for 210 yards with no interceptions.
The Baker-to-Cox combination struck early — for a six-yard gain on the first SIU snap — and late for a 48-yard, fourth-quarter pickup that led to a much-needed SIU touchdown after USD had cut the Saluki lead to just six points.
Moreover, the Salukis’ final touchdown not only boosted their lead to 12 points but also took away South Dakota’s run game and forced the Coyotes to pass with time running out.
“That was huge. We had the big play for Avante, and we were running the ball well all day,” Baker said.
Baker also hit Cox for a 44-yard gain in the third quarter that led to a Nico Gualdoni field goal.
“Those two big plays to Avante were huge,” Hill said.
2. Timely turnovers thwart South Dakota
SIU not only won the turnover battle 4-0 (three interceptions and fumble recovery) but made those plays at key moments.
Safety Qua Brown had two of the interceptions, one of which came in at the goal line as South Dakota quarterback Carson Camp targeted 6-foot-2, 240-pound tight end Brett Samson.
“We were ready for that. I knew No. 0 (Samson) got a lot of attention in the red zone,” said the 5-foot-11 Brown.
SIU pressured Camp for much of the game. The Salukis sacked the Normal West graduate four times and was credited with two quarterback hurries.
“I can’t say enough about our defense. That’s the most complete game on defense that we’ve played in a long time,” Hill said.
On South Dakota’s second-to-last drive, Camp broke free on a long scramble into SIU territory but freshman safety Dorian Davis stripped the quarterback of the ball and sophomore cornerback PJ Jules recovered for the fourth turnover of the game.
3. Balance returned to the SIU offense
The Salukis ran 80 plays for 407 yards — 233 in the air and 174 on the ground. Moreover, SIU controlled the time of possession, holding the ball for 35 minutes, 23 seconds of the 60-minute game.
As has been the pattern when all four of its backs are healthy, SIU rotated the ball carriers to keep them fresh, the defense on its toes and the play the hot hand.
Sophomore Romeir Elliott led SIU in carries (17) and yards (68). The 5-foot-6, 190-pounder also had the Salukis’ rushing touchdown.
Yet, sophomore Javon Williams Jr. (47 yards on 10 carries), senior Donnavan Spencer (31 yards on 6 carries) and sophomore Justin Strong (24 yards on 6 carries) were also factors. In addition, Williams Jr. completed a 23-yard pass.
Receivers also had four carries, mostly on jet sweeps.
Baker — making his first career playoff start — targeted nine different receivers in the game, completing passes to seven.
“Nic was efficient, stuck to the game plan and didn’t try to force things,” Hill said.
SIU built its 13-0 halftime lead with lengthy scoring drives of 14, 15 and 16 plays.
News & notes
Gualdoni nailed all three of his field goal attempts (50, 26 and 41 yards) . . . Coming into the game, SIU had struggled of late on third down conversions (just 24 percent over its last four games). Against South Dakota, the Salukis were 7-for-18 (39 percent) and 2-for-2 on fourth downs . . . In last weekend’s loss, the Salukis were 0-for-3 in fourth-quarter red zone trips against three-win Youngstown State. Against South Dakota, SIU cashed in on all three of its trips into the red zone. “Like a score in basketball, you want to see a couple of those go in early, especially moving the line of scrimmage. I felt like when we lined up and ran the ball (we were on our game),” Hill said . . . Cox amassed 154 total yards . . . senior Jack Colquhoun put 4-of-6 punts inside the USD 20-yard line . . . South Dakota played the game without its two starting corner backs, Tre Jackson and Myles Harden, who were out with injuries.
SIU plays at No. 2-seed North Dakota State Saturday, Dec. 4. Kickoff is at 2:30 p.m. Though both reside in the Missouri Valley, the Salukis and Bison did not face each other this fall.