CARBONDALE — Before SIU’s football team took the Saluki Stadium field Saturday, coach Nick Hill left them with a lasting thought.
“Leave a legacy,” he said.
In a stunning beatdown of the Missouri Valley Football Conference kingpin, SIU dominated No. 1 North Dakota State on both lines of scrimmage for four quarters in a 38-14 rout that emphatically ended the Bison’s 39-game winning streak.
Nic Baker threw for 254 yards and a touchdown in his first career start at quarterback. Avante Cox caught seven of those passes for 138 yards, toasting cornerbacks on each side of the field at will. Romeir Elliott rushed 18 times for 89 yards and two scores, and Javon Williams beasted his way to two short touchdown runs.
“We were all collected as a group,” Elliott said. “Everyone was on the same page.”
And if you thought the offense was good, take a look at the defense that a week earlier leaked 44 points in a one-sided loss at North Dakota. Aside from a 63-yard run by Javon Bussey that set up North Dakota State’s garbage time touchdown in the final 2 ½ minutes, the Salukis (2-1, 1-1) allowed just 46 yards on 20 attempts.
Cornerbacks James Ceasar and Roderick Campbell covered superbly, and there was just enough pass rush to force Zeb Noland into some questionable throws. The replacement for superstar quarterback Trey Lance hit just 13 of 24 passes for 159 yards with a touchdown and a Campbell interception that set up one of three fourth quarter scores.
It was Noland’s touchdown that set up a potential turning point. On the first half’s last play, he heaved a Hail Mary to the right corner of the end zone. The tipped ball somehow wound up in Jake Lippe’s hands for a 37-yard score after time expired.
After dominating the first 29-plus minutes of the half, SIU headed for the locker room leading just 17-7. The Bison (2-1, 1-1) had the ball to start the second half. It was only understandable that the Salukis might be deflated.
How did Hill and the coaching staff reset the team?
“The biggest focus was that everyone stay too level,” linebacker Bryce Notree said. “Not too high, not too low. We hadn’t accomplished anything yet. We had to flip the script.”
Late in the third quarter, North Dakota State cranked up the passing game. Noland converted two third and longs to get the Bison into SIU territory. A sense of unease began seeping through most of the 2,000-plus fans allowed in the stadium.
Then came Clayton Bush on a safety blitz. His strip-sack was recovered by Chester product Jordan Berner at the 49 with 1:13 left. The team that coughed up five turnovers at North Dakota came up with a big one at the right time.
“Turnovers are the key to winning football games,” Hill said.
Especially when you follow them with touchdowns. Five plays after Berner’s recovery, Baker zipped a 7-yard slant to Landon Lenoir for a 24-7 lead with 13:41 left in the game.
The kill shot happened less than two minutes later. Campbell jumped a badly-telegraphed pass and returned it to the NDSU 26, with an unsportsmanlike conduct foul pushing it to the 13. Four plays later, Williams bounced off right guard, reversed his field and leaped into the end to make it 31-7.
Elliott plopped the cherry on top of an ice-cream split day by zooming 20 yards off right tackle with 3:07 remaining, polishing off SIU’s third scoring drive of at least 6 ½ minutes. The Salukis owned possession for 41:26, running 73 plays from scrimmage to the Bison’s 45.
The last three minutes was a celebration for the SIU sideline and their fans. It mattered not one bit that Noland scored on a 5-yard run with 2:16 left. It just enabled the festivities to last a little longer.
When time expired, the team gathered to sing the school song in front of the fans. Then they whooped and hollered in the locker room.
After all, it’s not every day you leave a legacy.
“I kind of want those moments,” Baker said. “It’s what I dreamed of.”