Southern survives second-half scare against Illinois State

SIU+wide+receiver+Hunter+Milligan%2C+middle%2C+runs+onto+the+field+with+the+SIU+football+team+during+the+Homecoming+game+on+Saturday%2C+Oct.+16%2C+2021+at+Salukis+Stadium+at+SIU.+

Jared Treece | @bisalo

SIU wide receiver Hunter Milligan, middle, runs onto the field with the SIU football team during the Homecoming game on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021 at Salukis Stadium at SIU.

Saluki football (3-2, 2-0) extended its winning streak to three on Saturday with a road win over Illinois State (2-2, 0-1), the first in Normal since 2012. However, aside from a few second-quarter drives, SIU struggled to move the ball like they had the previous few weeks, as evidenced by the 19-14 final score.

“My seventh-grade basketball coach, Coach Craft, always told me, ‘I’d rather win ugly than lose pretty any day,’” head coach Nick Hill said.

Southern Illinois scored all of its 19 points in the second quarter, and entered the locker room at halftime having shut out the Redbirds on their home turf. With a crowd of more than 11,000 on hand at Hancock Stadium, it was important for the Salukis to set the tone early and take the crowd out of the game.

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All three of Southern’s touchdowns were on the ground, scored by Nic Baker, Javon Williams Jr. and Ro Elliott respectively. The latter two were set up by big plays from Saluki receiver D’Ante’ Cox, who had a 67-yard catch and a 43-yard run to put SIU within striking distance on both drives.

D’Ante’ Cox’s season highs in receptions and yards could be credited in part to his twin brother Avante; the twin brothers both know the offense well, and share the role of the top receiver for the Salukis.

“So many times, they’re really interchangeable,” Hill said. “We don’t tell them who’s at Z, who’s at X… So many times you see, that he (Avante) knows the screen might be going to the slot, and Avante multiple times in this game told D’Ante’, ‘Take the slot, I’ll block for you.’”

This is the first year that the Cox brothers have been able to play together, after D’Ante’ had struggled with injury the past two seasons. The seniors have made the most of their time together in their final seasons as Salukis.

A halftime score of 19-0 made it seem like the Salukis could end up running away with this game. However, they were shut out in the second half and ultimately held to their lowest point total of the season, which gave Illinois State a chance to get back into the game.

The Redbirds had transitioned to using an up-tempo, no-huddle offense, which allowed them to put up 14 unanswered points. Illinois State threatened to score in the final minutes of the game, but with 1:35 to play, Richie Hagarty sacked ISU quarterback Zack Annexstad on 4th-and-8 from the SIU 13 to end the Redbirds’ comeback attempt.

“The offense was struggling, so we knew we had to come out on top,” Hagarty said. “We knew if they (Illinois State) didn’t score, we were gonna win.”

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That sack was one of three that SIU racked up on the day. Although they did not force a turnover, something the team has struggled with this season, the offense played a clean game with no turnovers committed for the third time in its last four games.

The defense remained strong for the most part, but the offense couldn’t say the same. The Salukis punted on all five of its meaningful second-half drives, and only ran more than five plays on one of those drives.

Baker only threw 19 passes, over half of which coming in the first quarter. He finished with 143 yards, finding Cox for 102 of those yards. Williams was also given a few looks from the wildcat formation, going 2-for-3 passing for 21 yards.

Elliott had the most touches on the ground, gaining 74 yards on 15 carries. He was followed by Cox, whose lone carry went for 43 yards, and Williams, who had 32 yards on nine carries from the wildcat.

The Salukis improved to a record above .500 for the first time this season. After what seemed like it could quickly become a lost season, SIU has salvaged it with a three-game winning streak and a 2-0 start in conference play.

“I’m proud of this team,” Hill said. “Like I told them in the locker room. From where we were in Week 1, the commitment to grow individually… The maturity has gotten better.”

But if they plan to be competitive with No. 7 Missouri State (2-3, 0-2) next week, they will need to fix the issues that kept the second-half offense ineffective. Although the Bears lost on Saturday to a North Dakota team that Southern Illinois defeated last week and will head into next week on a three-game skid, they will still be a tough opponent that will give SIU their first true Valley road test.

“It’s fun to play in this league, because it’s just a challenge every single week,” Hill said. “There’s no gimmies. There’s no ‘man, let’s look at our schedule and there’s three or four wins.’”

After their game against Missouri State on Oct. 8, Southern will return to Carbondale on Oct. 15 to host Western Illinois on Homecoming Weekend. Kickoff for that game from Saluki Stadium is scheduled for 2 p.m.

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

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