CARBONDALE — SIU's football team took one step forward and two steps backward most of the first three quarters against Illinois State, but couldn't be stopped once it got going Saturday.
The oldest football team in Saluki history, with 17 sixth-year seniors, knew it had time after getting shut out in the first half for the first time this season. Izaiah Hartrup's 70-yard kickoff return in the third quarter provided the spark the team needed, but was followed by a 15-yard sideline interference penalty on No. 7/8 SIU. The Salukis overcame it, reaching the 20-yard line on a short Justin Strong run and punching it in off Nic Baker's 7-yard pass to Landon Lenoir in the end zone. Nico Gualdoni added the extra point as part of a 35-point run by SIU to win 35-17.
"I feel like the offense came out and didn't do what we were supposed to do, and I knew we needed a spark," said Hartrup, who finished with 152 all-purpose yards. "I was really hoping coach could say we could take that kick return out, and I knew as soon as he gave me the signal to do it, I was going to be able to make a big play, so I was happy to be able to help our team."
The Salukis (3-1, 1-0 Missouri Valley Football Conference) trailed 17-0 less than three minutes into the third quarter, but scored on five of their next six possessions to win their league opener for the first time under coach Nick Hill. Nic Baker completed 21 of 32 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns, and Javon Williams Jr. ran for two more scores.
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ISU (2-2, 0-1) held SIU to two first downs and 73 total yards in the opening half. The Redbirds only had eight first downs and 113 yards, themselves, but led 10-0 at the break and scored on their opening possession of the third quarter. When they lined up Cole Mueller on a fourth-and-1 at the Saluki 6-yard line, they appeared to be going in for the knockout score.
Instead, SIU defensive end Richie Hagarty stopped Mueller short of the marker. The Redbirds never scored again, and the Salukis clawed back to within a field goal off Donnavan Spencer's 40-yard touchdown run.
"We couldn't go in the red zone and get field goals. It was at that point of the game, and it was fourth-and-1, and we had to be able to get a yard," ISU coach Brock Spack said. "That was a big momentum blow for them. I get it. The first half we played a little more conservatively, a little bit closer to the vest, but in the second half we gotta go for it, and it was fourth-and-1. We gotta make one yard."
Quarterback Jackson Waring's 1-yard touchdown run with 12:08 to go in the third put the Redbirds up 16-0. Kicker Aiden Bresnahan's extra point made it 17-0, but it was the end of ISU's offensive day. Waring completed 13 of 24 passes for 166 yards. He was sacked four times, and lost the football with under eight minutes to go.
SIU pounced, jumping in front double digits in two plays. Williams went four yards on first down, and Baker found Strong up the middle for a 17-yard touchdown. Williams added a 3-yard scoring run with 2:40 to play.
"We had some calls dialed up that they did a great job of getting some pressure on," Hill said. "I'm just really proud of the guys. They've been resilient. That was just an all-around team victory, that you want to see good teams do. This is a really tough league. We play a tough schedule. Everything is not always going to go according to plan and be easy."
Mueller had 87 yards rushing on 14 carries for ISU. The Redbirds intercepted Baker twice and won the time of possession battle by more than six minutes (33:27 to 26:33).
Safety Qua Brown had 11 tackles to lead SIU's defense. Linebacker Shanon Reid had 15 stops for the Redbirds.
SIU was called for six penalties for 63 yards and had a punt blocked. The Salukis had 73 yards at the half and finished the game with 371.
Hartrup, who caught seven passes for 82 yards, all in the second half, had 47 on one over the middle he snagged one-handed with his left. The freshman from O'Fallon, Missouri, said to stay tuned for the rest of SIU's MVFC schedule.
"It feels great, it really does, but this is just the beginning," Hartrup said. "We got so much potential. We got so much in store. We're excited to show you guys what we're capable of this year."
On Twitter: @THefferman