On a late October day in 2019, a sub-.500 Southern Illinois football team won a Missouri Valley Football Conference game in Vermillion, S.D.
Since that day midway through former Saluki quarterback Nick Hill’s head coaching tenure in Carbondale, the trajectory of the SIU program has taken a decidedly upward path.
On Saturday, the No. 21 ranked Salukis (7-4) return to the University of South Dakota for a first-round playoff game, the second season in a row that SIU has made the postseason.
“I’m definitely proud of this team and the direction of the program,” Hill said this week. “The expectations have clearly changed, from hoping (to make the playoffs) to expecting.”
Since that October day in 2019, the Salukis have won 65% of their games (17-9), are two-time playoff participants with a deep, talented roster and have one of the most productive offenses in the country, ranking in the top 40 in FCS in total offense, rushing and passing.
An Illinois native who transferred from Wyoming – wide receiver Avante Cox – was playing in the eighth game of his SIU career two seasons ago. He had eight receptions for 113 yards and two touchdowns against South Dakota in a 48-28 victory, ran for an 80-yard touchdown and piled up 255 all-purpose yards. Since that day, Hill has called his star receiver the best playmaker in the nation.
Javon Williams Jr., then a redshirt freshman, bulldozed his way to four rushing touchdowns and 107 yards in the 2019 game. He now ranks third all-time in career touchdowns at SIU and is among the top 10 on the career rushing yards and 100-yard games lists.
The 2019 win in Vermillion was part of a five-game MVFC winning streak that pushed the Salukis to a 7-5 record, their first winning season of Hill’s current six-year tenure. Though they weren’t chosen as a 2019 playoff team, their impressive finish was just the beginning.
SIU has followed that with a 6-4 mark during the FCS spring season — highlighted by a 34-31 victory at then-No. 3 Weber State in the first round of the playoffs – and a 7-4 record this fall.
“This is the third year in a row that this team has been a couple games over .500 in the toughest league in the country,” said Hill, who noted the program is enjoying back-to-back playoff seasons for the first time since 2008-2009.
Before beating the Coyotes two years ago, Hill’s teams had a 13-27 record (a 33% winning percentage) and hung their hats on losing one-possession games. In 2018, the Salukis were 2-9.
The past two seasons have produced plenty of wins and a new level of confidence in the SIU program. Going on the road today is no longer the challenge it was prior to 2019.
“(We have) the confidence of going on the road and getting a win,” Hill said. “We’ve been there before. We understand what it takes.”