CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. — Nic Baker wasted no time testing Southeast Missouri State's defense Thursday night and never looked back in a record-setting season opener at Houck Field.
Baker, a fourth-year sophomore starting his fourth collegiate game, found All-American receiver and former Rochester High School teammate Avante Cox for a 99-yard touchdown on SIU's very first offensive play. Baker threw for three more scores, to three different receivers (tight end Tyce Daniel, Izaiah Hartrup and Landon Lenoir), and finished the No. 7/10 Salukis' 47-21 rout of the Redhawks with a school-record 460 yards passing. Baker finished off his fourth win in as many starts with 25 completions on 34 attempts.
Baker broke Sam Straub's 2016 record of 450 yards passing against Western Illinois with a 13-yard corner fade to Lenoir that the senior snared right inside the lines. SIU scored 44 points behind Straub's performance.
SIU's 47 points Thursday night were the most by the Salukis against the Redhawks since SIU beat them 50-23 in 2014.
"It's a big game for us and (our players) respected that," SIU coach Nick Hill said. "We played hard and we played disciplined. Our guys were focused to win this football game. Our guys have goals for this season and this is step one."
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Baker's only big miscue was a pass too far for Lenoir late in the third quarter. Linebacker Mike Matthews was in the right spot at the right time, and turned the interception off the tipped pass into a 10-yard pick six.
Baker sat the final 11:50, turning the offense over to backup quarterback Stone Norton.
The two teams played in front of a limited attendance sellout of 4,075 fans. Less than 24 hours after the south grandstand was deemed structurally unstable, fans were funneled to the north grandstand. Media watched the game from the field, between the 20-yard line and the end zones. Saluki fans made up about a fifth of the crowd at the beginning of the game, but found a lot to cheer about.
Cox finished the game with five catches for 187 yards and the touchdown on the first play, a big start to his pursuit of the first 1,000-yard receiving season since Cornell Craig had 1,419 yards in 1999. Hartrup caught a game-high six passes for 72 yards, Lenoir had 79 yards on four catches, and Daniel, a transfer from Memphis, caught five balls for 62 passes.
SEMO got called for one pass interference penalty and struggled with two new starters in the secondary. The Redhawks also lost veteran cornerback Shabari Davis to an injury in the first half.
"They brought everybody back and we didn’t," SEMO coach Tom Matukewicz told the Southeast Missourian newspaper. "I felt all along that there might be some growing pains. There are reasons things happen and we’ve had a lot of turnover."
SIU's defense did the rest under partly cloudy skies and temps in the 80s at game time. The Salukis held the Redhawks to 139 yards rushing and no touchdowns on 33 carries in the opening 53 minutes. SEMO's Geno Hess, a preseason All-Ohio Valley Conference pick, had 101 yards with seven minutes to play after a 35-yard run. Hess had 128 yards and a touchdown last fall against SIU.
SEMO had 95 yards passing with seven minutes to play. The Salukis recovered two fumbles and had 6.0 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks. They also had seven quarterback hurries. Linebacker Bryce Notree had a team-high nine tackles and a half-sack. Linebacker Makel Calhoun had seven stops. Defensive end Anthony Knighton had a half-sack in the first half and four tackles. Knighton is a half-sack from tying James Phillips' school record.
Baker faked a handoff after taking the snap in the end zone on SIU's first offensive play, turned and flipped the ball over the line of scrimmage to a wide-open Cox. He caught it near the 20 and raced untouched to the end zone. Baker threw three touchdown passes in the first half to lead No. 7/10 SIU to a 28-7 halftime lead over its regional rivals.
SIU nearly went up 28 points, but SEMO blocked Nico Gualdoni's 22-yard field goal attempt late in the half.
SEMO got its only touchdown in the first half off C.J. Ogbonna's 15-yard pass to Zack Smith in the first quarter.
SIU went almost exclusively to the air early, as Baker completed 14 of 18 passes for 294 yards in the first half. Strong and Javon Williams Jr. were the Salukis' leading rushers with 28 yards each.
Ogbonna, a transfer from Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College, completed 6 of 11 passes for 37 yards in the first half. He finished 9 of 19 for 47 yards.
SEMO went 1 for 7 on third down in the first half and finished 4 of 15.
SIU is next at Kansas State on Sept. 11. Kickoff in Manhattan, Kansas, is set for 6 p.m.
On Twitter: @THefferman