Last minute touchdown leads Salukis past Weber State

By Ryan Scott, Staff Reporter

Southern Illinois football (6-3,5-3 MVC) won a back and forth game over Weber State (5-1,5-0 Big Sky) in the first round of the FCS playoffs by a score of 34-31 on April 24.

Both teams led at different times throughout the game but the final score came with 51 seconds left.

On fourth down and six from the Wildcats eight, junior quarterback Stone Labanowitz rolled out under pressure and floated the ball into the corner of the endzone. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Branson Combs was able to get space in the corner of the endzone and brought the ball in for the game winning touchdown.

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Saluki head coach Nick Hill spoke after the game and said he was proud of the team today.

“I’m just really proud of our guys. Like I’ve been saying all year, I just can’t say enough about everybody involved. First and foremost, the players. I told them that before the game, they earned the right to be in this game, that ultimately this game is about the players. I’m just proud of them, I’m proud of them committing,” Hill said

Labanowitz discussed his reaction to the win and the excitement he had.

“I was looking for someone to hug. I wanted to hug every single kid we brought on this trip, every kid we have back home that wasn’t able to make it here. I mean, too many emotions, waving goodbye to all the Weber State fans, you could hear a pin drop in the stadium, that was my favorite part,” Labanowitz said

Senior linebacker Bryce Notree spoke after the game about SIU’s resiliency after being down 14 points on two separate occasions.

“We pride ourself on putting the ball down any situation that we got, you know, for backup in a red zone. If we got them backed up in their own touchdown, we just play hard. We put the ball down, and anything that happens, we just get over it, and we always have that next play mentality. That’s what the boys did. That’s what we had,” Notree said.

Weber State received the ball to start the game and after driving down to the 16 yard line freshman quarterback Bronson Barron’s pass was intercepted in the endzone by senior cornerback James Ceasar.

The Wildcats however, would score first as SIU went three and out. Weber State then quickly drove down the field and set up a one yard touchdown run from sophomore running back Kris Jackson to get a 7-0 lead.

Labanowitz’s third down pass was picked off on the next possession which led to the Wildcats taking a 14-0 lead as Barron completed a 28 yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Justin Malone.

Late in the first quarter SIU would get on the board as Labanowitz threw a 26 yard touchdown to junior wide receiver Avante Cox.

The Wildcats drove right back down the field and set up a one yard touchdown run from running back Daniel Wright Jr. to get the Weber State lead back to 14 points at 21-7.

Southern Illinois scored the last ten points of the first half on a touchdown run from senior wide receiver Landon Lenoir. Senior kicker Nico Gualdoni made a field goal with 17 seconds left in the first half to cut the deficit to only four.

SIU’s opening possession of the second half was a quick three and out and the team lost six yards on the drive. Weber State would then get the ball down to the Salukis 15 yard line to set up a field goal.

The 32 yard attempt from freshman kicker Kyle Thompson was no good and the Salukis would capitalize as they took their first lead of the game.

A 13 play, 80 yard drive highlighted by a fake field goal would give the Salukis that lead. After the offense stalled at the three yard line the kicking unit came onto the field.

Saluki’s tight end Cole Steward lined up wide and nobody on the Wildcats saw him, Gualdoni took the snap directly and threw it to a wide open Steward for the touchdown as SIU took a 24-21 lead.

Hill discussed the fake field goal that turned out to be a touchdown in the third quarter.

“Each week we talk about the different fakes you know, early in the week, what’s there. I ask him throughout all of our meetings like what he likes and honestly right there he suggested it now like yeah, let’s roll with that because if they notice that he’s over there then we can shift back and we can kick the field goal,” Hill said

Thompson evened the game back up at 24 early in the fourth on a 32 yard field goal after Saluki sophomore running back Romeir Elliot fumbled at his own three yard line. The defense held up and forced the field goal.

Gualdoni would come up big once again as he made a 44 yard field goal with 8:18 left in the game to give SIU a 27-24 lead.

The Wildcats wouldn’t go away as Wright Jr. moved Weber State up the field with a 40 yard run that led to a Bronson rushing touchdown with just 5:25 left in the game.

With SIU trailing 31-27 they needed a touchdown and they would get some help from the Wildcats as a 15 yard late hit penalty kept the ball moving for the Salukis. They would then get the ball all the way down to the eight yard line to set up the game winning fourth down touchdown pass from Labanowitz to Combs.

Weber State was able to move the ball onto the Saluki’s side of the field but a sack from junior defensive end Raquan Lindsey would put the game away and send the Salukis into the next round.

SIU will travel to Brookings, South Dakota next week and take on the Jackrabbits for the second time this season. SDSU beat the Salukis 44-3 in Carbondale on March 20.

Sports reporter Ryan Scott can be reached at [email protected] or on twitter @RyanscottDE. 

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