CARBONDALE -- Southern Illinois University's football team used two unlikely units to win its first close game of the season Saturday night.
The Salukis' special teams tied the game in the final seconds of regulation, and the defense denied 16th-ranked Youngstown State's last-ditch effort in overtime to squeak out a 38-31 Homecoming victory. SIU evened its record in the Missouri Valley Football Conference at 2-2 and won its first game of the year decided by seven points or less.
"All I kept telling the guys was 'It's gonna happen. You gotta believe,'" SIU coach Dale Lennon said. "And you just keep repeating that. And when we went to overtime, I pulled the team together and said 'We got it, guys. Just pull together.'"
Kicker Austin Johnson, who missed two field goals earlier, connected from 18 yards out to tie the game with six seconds left in regulation. The Salukis had hoped to win the game on their final drive of regulation, but Mark Iannotti's third-and-goal pass to fullback Hans Carmien as he was running left was dropped. SIU settled for the field goal to tie the game.
Youngstown State (3-4, 1-3 MVFC) kneeled on its final possession to force overtime and won the toss. The Penguins elected to go on defense, hoping to get a stop and then win the game with the football.
SIU got one yard on its first two plays of overtime, but Iannotti put them ahead to stay with a 24-yard loft to the right side of the end zone that found wide receiver Israel Lamprakes. Lamprakes had a defender on his left and was pinned to the sideline when the ball was thrown, but turned to catch it before any of the Penguins' defenders seemed to know it was in the air.
When a Youngstown State player jumped offsides, Iannotti decided to roll the dice and said he just tried to keep the throw inbounds.
"We did a hard count there and tried to get them to jump offsides. We knew we had a free play, being third-and-10," Iannotti said. "(Quarterbacks) coach (Nick) Hill just drilled it into our heads in the meetings, you can't have long foul balls. If we have a free play, don't overthrow your receiver. Don't throw it out of bounds, just give your receivers a chance to come up with it. It's something we practice every day so it was nice to see it pay off in a game."
The offense, which scored 30 or more points for the sixth time this season, got three touchdowns passing and one rushing from Iannotti. Down 11 with 5:35 to play, Daquan Isom burned an all-out Penguins blitz when he caught Iannotti's screen pass going to his left and went 75 yards for the quick touchdown the Salukis needed. Lennon decided to go for two, and Iannotti found Shaq Findlater on the left side of the end zone for the conversion.
The defense, one of SIU's most snake-bitten units this season, forced a three-and-out to get the ball back to the offense and ended the game by forcing an incompletion in the end zone. Youngstown State running back Martin Ruiz rolled right on a fourth-and-2 from the SIU 6-yard line and pulled up to pass. Instead of trying to get the first down, he threw toward the end zone, but the ball fell incomplete to seal the victory.
The special teams, which surrended two blocked punts in a 39-36 loss at No. 21 Indiana State on Oct. 17, blocked its second kick of the game to get the offense good field position in order to tie it at the end of regulation. Linebacker Chase Allen, who had to sit the first half because of a targeting call in that loss to the Sycamores, partially blocked Nick Sheely's punt, which was recovered at the Youngstown State 47-yard line.
Thirteen plays later, SIU tied the score and was on its way.
"It was a great win," said SIU safety Kenny James, who had a pick-6 and a game-high 16 tackles in the victory. "And The last couple games we've lost by eight points, coach (David) Elson has been preaching all week, find those eight points. And we all came together on defense."