At last week’s press conference, SIU coach Dale Lennon noted how a punt that is blocked for a score increases a team’s chances of winning tremendously.
That statement showed its validity a few days later in the Salukis’ 34-31 Homecoming win over the University of Northern Iowa.
With fewer than eight minutes left in the second quarter, SIU trailed the Panthers 21-6 and the game was on the verge of becoming a blowout. All-conference return man senior Steven Strother fumbled the kickoff and gave the Panthers excellent field position. After the defense forced a 3-and-out, UNI had to punt. Senior defensive end Ken Boatright broke through the line and blocked the punt, which caromed backward 40 yards into the end zone. Boatright tracked it down for the score.
Essentially, the play gave the Salukis a breath of fresh air and brought the score to 21-13.
“We were headed down a bad road,” Lennon said after the game.“It could have easily gone way south to the point where we couldn’t recover, but to come up with the blocked punt, that’s the second week that we’ve done that. Our confidence is very high and Kenny Boatright just got a paw on it, and that ball took off flying.”
UNI was on the attack once again after a failed drive by each team. A sack by junior linebacker Bryan Presume put UNI in a second-and-15 situation, but UNI quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen found receiver Chad Owen down the seam on the following play for a 33-yard gain and put the ball on the Saluki 9-yard line. Running back David Johnson appeared ready to score on the next play, but he fumbled the ball into the end zone.
The ball was picked up by Presume, who took it the length of the field for a score.
“I was just running to the ball doing my responsibility, and I saw the ball on the ground,” Presume said. “I picked it up and started running, and at about the 40 or so I ran out of gas and almost fell down a few times. That play I made pretty much set the tone for the rest of the game. We never get our head down.”
After a pass from junior quarterback Kory Faulkner to freshman tight end Adam Fuehne for the two-point conversion, the score was tied 21-21 to end the half.
SIU put together a solid drive in the third quarter with screen passes to sophomore receiver LaSteven McKinney and the aid of two personal foul calls on the UNI defense. Freshman kicker Austin Johnson knocked a 34-yard field goal through the uprights to give the Salukis a 24-21 advantage.
Northern Iowa fumbled the ball on the next drive and gave the Salukis possession at the UNI 21-yard line. On the first play after the turnover, Faulkner found sophomore tight end MyCole Pruitt in the end zone corner for the touchdown and a 31-21 lead.
UNI fought back, and scored a touchdown as well as a field goal in a four-minute span to tie the game with 9:54 left to play.
The Salukis then pieced together a nine-minute drive — the team’s longest of the season — with strong runs by Faulkner, Strother, senior running back Mulku Kalokoh and sophomore running back Mika’il McCall to put the ball in field-goal-range with less than a minute to play.
“It was a long (drive),” Faulkner said. “We didn’t put ourselves in a bad situation. We have three really good running backs. It kind of sucks that we can’t give them all the ball all the time because they are all good. Each week one of them can have a really good game.”
The Salukis trotted out Johnson for a chance to win the game and redeem a kicking unit that has been a problem all season. Johnson’s kick was true and gave the Salukis the win.
“My problem in the beginning of the season was that I thought too much, and that was why I missed those few,” Johnson said. “So I just went out there and had fun. I’m glad that I didn’t think when I had to kick.”
Linebacker Jayson Dimanche, a fifth-year senior, said he didn’t expect anything less than a tight game with UNI.
“It’s a big rivalry,” he said. “They have a lot of good players. It was just a really fun game to play in. Games like that when they come down to the wire are just a lot more competitive, a lot more fun to be in and it makes winning that much better.”
The Salukis look to continue their winning streak on the road at Youngstown State Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 3 p.m.