The visitors’ locker room at the DakotaDome in Vermillion, S.D., Saturday night was home to plenty of good vibes for Southern Illinois after its first-round FCS playoff victory.
“You do it for a lot of reasons, but that small window of time (in the locker room), the plane rides home. There’s not much in life you get to come together as a team and appreciate these moments,” SIU head coach Nick Hill said after the Salukis’ 22-10 victory against South Dakota.
SIU’s bounceback performance was the perfect remedy for a 1-3 record in the regular season’s final four games, including a Senior Day loss in Carbondale to three-win Youngstown State.
“It feels amazing, even better than the feeling I had in the spring when we went up to Weber (State) and beat them (in the playoffs),” said senior safety Qua Brown, who had two interceptions for SIU. “We were kind of down after the loss last weekend. We put in a ton of work to prepare. It all just worked out the way we planned it.”
Erasing the past month and starting fresh for the playoffs was a common theme for the Salukis (8-4) throughout their preparation for South Dakota.
“We talked about that all week,” Hill said. “You line back up, no matter what happens. We talk about how that’s life. You’ve got to find a way to gain that confidence. Our team plays exciting football when they’re flying around, playing with passion. I wanted to see that team that plays with tons of passion and energy.”
Hill saw that from his offense and sophomore quarterback Nic Baker – who was playing his first career playoff game – in the first quarter.
The Salukis found their rhythm with three first-half scoring drives of at least 14 plays that led to a 13-0 halftime lead. The first half featured SIU’s offense going 5-for-11 on third-down conversions and 2-for-2 on fourth downs.
“It kept us in a groove,” Baker said. “We like to go up tempo when we get that first first down. We feel like we’re in rhythm and that we can score points when we do that. As an offense, when you keep (converting) third (downs), that kind of drains a defense. That was huge.”
Baker was coming off of an 11-for-34 passing effort with two interceptions against Youngstown State, a game he wanted to put in the rearview mirror.
“I wanted to have a good game,” he said. “I wanted to win. If we come out on top, I’m doing something well.”
The reward for SIU is a trip to Fargo, N.D., to face No. 2 seed and fellow Missouri Valley Football Conference foe North Dakota State (10-1) at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 4.
“I can’t wait,” Baker said. “I went there when I was a true freshman and I remember the atmosphere there. I was like, ‘Man, these are the type of games I want to play in.’ This is why I came to college. I know it’s going to be a good game.”