Salukis thrilled to be back home before a big crowd

By Brandyn Wilcoxen, Staff reporter

Saluki Stadium allowed the maximum 15,000 fans for Saluki football’s home opener against the Dayton Flyers on Sept. 18, marking a return to full capacity two years in the making.

Southern Illinois was coming off a 31-23 defeat at the hands of Kansas State, dropping their record to 1-1 on the year. Meanwhile, Dayton won in its season opener last week 17-10 over Eastern Illinois. (See All Dawgs: Salukis crush Dayton Flyers in home opener 55-3 for game details).

While the Salukis impressed against FBS competition the previous week, even leading at halftime, head coach Nick Hill stressed the importance of not underestimating any opponent.

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“This (Dayton) isn’t a lower-level opponent by any means,” Hill said in his weekly press conference. “They have had more success than us in the past 10 years so they’re a team that fully expects to win their league and be in the playoffs. They expect to win.”

While eyes are on the on-field product, the impact of fans returning to the stands did not go unnoticed.

“Our team is excited playing at home. It’s been two weeks on the road and we’ve played in different environments and we’re excited to play in Saluki Stadium,” Hill said.

One player who looked forward to the home opener is Saluki was quarterback Nic Baker, who was playing at a full capacity Saluki Stadium for the first time since winning the starting role.

“I get a little nervous before games like these, but once we’re out there in front of the fans I’ll be good to go,” Baker said.

Baker’s history at Saluki Stadium includes minimal playing time in 2018 and 2019, an upset against No. 1 North Dakota State in his first career start last season, and a season-ending injury against Northern Iowa two weeks later.

With last season’s home games being limited to 20% capacity due to COVID  restrictions, the  Dayton game was Baker’s first home game in front of a full crowd since his time at Rochester High School.

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The fans themselves were just as excited to get back to the stands as the players are to see them. Dawg Pound President Dylan Chambers couldn’t wait for his first experience with full stands. Chambers is a sophomore, so while he attended all Saluki football home games last year, none were at full capacity.

“You can see it in pictures, and you can see it when it was filled. You’d feel like ‘wow, that’s what it used to look like’,” Chambers said.

SIU football’s official Twitter account promoted the hashtag #PackThePound. The hashtag was also adopted by the Dawg Pound in an effort to drive turnout for the game.

“We want to be that student section that everybody wants to see on ESPN. We’re here to leave a mark,” Chambers said.

With all the excitement surrounding the return of fans, just as important was the preparation of the Salukis themselves. Dayton canceled its 2020 season, and its scheduled week 1 game against Robert Morris was derailed by COVID issues, so SIU only has one game to analyze from the past 2 years ahead of Saturday’s contest.

Coach Nick Hill said he believed the lack of film won’t be a problem.

“You’d like to have more, but it’s just like playing a team the first week of the season and just like playing Kansas State with only one game through the season,” Hill said.

Baker agreed with Hill, also comparing Dayton to Kansas State in terms of SIU’s ability to prepare. However, he mentioned that, even with the high turnover that comes with college athletics, Dayton’s defensive scheme is similar to years past.

“They’ve been running the same defense for a few years, so we can look at past game film,” Baker said.

The last time Baker played a full game at Saluki Stadium, it ended with him earning Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Week honors. After receiving the same award in week 1 against Southeast Missouri State, Baker looks to continue with another good performance.

“We want to get a winning streak going, build some momentum going into our conference schedule,” Baker said.

Not only is the football team focused on building momentum, but the Dawg Pound is also looking for a good showing as the season progresses.

“Everybody’s excited about it. Everybody’s got high expectations, especially the sponsors,” Chambers said. “They want the Dawg Pound back and I said ‘challenge accepted’.”

Staff reporter Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @Brandyn_2020

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