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Saluki Football

SIU cashes big check, earns big win

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EVANSTON – A week ago, Nic Baker fired a prayer towards the end zone on the last play of a soul-breaking loss to Southeast Missouri State.

On Saturday, Baker did something else associated with a prayer.

Only in football terms, taking a knee is a far cry from a prayer.

“It’s my favorite play in football,” he said.

It was a play that secured SIU’s biggest football win since ending North Dakota State’s 39-game winning streak in February 2021. The Salukis got off the 2022 schneid at Ryan Field with a 31-24 defeat of FBS foe Northwestern.

When Javon Williams powered through multiple tacklers for a 9-yard run on 3rd-and-3 with 56 seconds left, SIU (1-2) got the first down it needed to ice the game. The Wildcats (1-2) had just two timeouts left, not enough to keep the Salukis from running out the clock.

Baker took knees and soon, SIU players and fans exulted. Romeir Elliott stood at midfield, arms stretched wide in celebration. Players stormed the field and raced to a Saluki student section that unleashed multiple SIU chants that echoed through a half-filled stadium during the second half.

“They were similar, emotional wins,” Baker said of beating Northwestern and NDSU. “We were coming off bad losses before each game and we had our backs against a wall. We needed both wins and we came through.”

Baker was a big part of this one. He completed his first 11 passes and finished 23 of 34 for 241 yards and three touchdowns. The last one, a 9-yard flip to Jacob Garrett with 12:28 left in the game, snapped a 17-17 tie and put the Salukis ahead for good.

SIU’s defense, much-maligned after allowing 98 points in losses to Incarnate Word and SEMO, played with purpose against a bigger opponent. They tackled well, didn’t allow a spate of big plays and came up with four turnovers after not creating one in the first two games.

The final turnover was a strip-sack by safety PJ Jules, who was brilliant with 11 tackles, that Nick Okeke recovered at the Wildcats’ 10 with 5:54 left. Two plays later, Baker snuck into the end zone from the one for a 31-17 advantage.

Northwestern drew within a score on Ryan Hilinski’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Malik Washington at the 1:19 mark, but Bryce Miller recovered an onside kick. Three plays later, Williams went into closer mode and the regal canines basked in the glow of a doubleheader sweep of sorts – a $550,000 paycheck from their Big 10 opponent and the win.

“It’s hard to put in words,” said SIU coach Nick Hill. “I’m proud to be a Saluki, proud to be the head coach of this team. It’s in times of adversity when people have to lead and it’s not just me – it’s guys like our leadership council.

“They found a way to pull together and not fray. There were some tough moments these first couple of games, but what I’ve learned is every team is different. You just have to go back to the basics and do what it takes. We responded, we battled. It was fun to watch.”

It was the Salukis' first win over a Big 10 team since 2006, when Hill quarterbacked them past Indiana in Bloomington. And it was their first victory over an FBS team since Hill led them to a rout of Massachusetts in 2019 up in Amherst.

The Salukis trailed 7-0 and 14-7, but responded each time with tying touchdowns. And even when potentially game-turning moments went against them, they kept grinding away. They played their cleanest game with just four penalties and one turnover.

It was as much about what they didn’t do as what they did do to produce the upset.

“Getting the train rolling was huge, especially against a team like Northwestern,” Baker said. “Our defense played with a big enthusiasm; they made them earn everything they got. We just found a way.”

DAWG BITES

Baker’s first two TD passes came in the second quarter. He found Tyce Daniel for 57 yards on a seam pattern to start the period and then hit Garrett on an 18-yarder over the middle after Combs intercepted a pass. … Safety Clayton Bush avoided a targeting ejection for the second straight game when the Big Ten officials overturned a call on the field, saying Bush lowered his shoulder blade and not the helmet on a hit in the second quarter just before Combs’ interception. … SIU starts Missouri Valley Football Conference play at 2 p.m. Saturday in Saluki Stadium against North Dakota.

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