Salukis come up one yard short; Northern Iowa wins 37-36

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Angel Chevrestt | @sobrofotos

Salukis running back Justin Strong tries to get past the reach of Panthers defender Nick McCabe during the SIU’s 17-16 win at Saluki stadium on Saturday, March 13, 2021.

By Brandyn Wilcoxen, Sports Reporter

Nic Baker’s final pass on Saturday afternoon, his 48th attempt of the game, was completed to redshirt freshman receiver Jay Jones. The 42-yard completion pushed Baker past his own school record for most passing yards in a game with 485. However, Baker and the Salukis would have wanted just one more yard.

“I’m not gonna give a shit about that record, honestly. We lost,” an emotional Baker said.

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Jones, who made only his second career catch on Saturday, was ruled down at the 1-yard-line on the final play of the game, sealing a Northern Iowa victory over Southern Illinois 37-36 at Saluki Stadium. Both teams are 5-4 overall and 4-2 in conference play.

The hail mary attempt was the second of two chances Southern had to win the game. The first was intercepted in the end zone as time expired but was canceled out by an offsides penalty on the Panthers that gave Southern an untimed down.

Northern Iowa scored what would be the game’s final touchdown to make it 37-36 with 5:55 remaining in the game. The Salukis moved down the field, eventually being stopped at the UNI 23-yard-line. The Panthers had used their timeouts to preserve the clock in case they needed to respond, so Jake Baumgarte’s 40-yard field goal attempt came with 55 seconds left.

The kick went wide right, but Southern still had a chance. With three timeouts, the defense stopped the Panthers on three plays to force a punt and give their offense one final opportunity with 29 seconds left.

“I was proud of the way that we kept all of our timeouts…” head coach Nick Hill said. “And we executed there at the end to give ourselves a chance to put it in the end zone a couple times.”

They could only make it to around midfield with the time they had, setting up the two hail-mary attempts. Despite numerous opportunities, they ultimately came up just one yard short.

It took a replay review to confirm the call on the field that Jones was short. Initially, the Saluki sideline had begun storming the field once Jones dove into the end zone; and then again when they were convinced that he had scored a touchdown. In a lengthy delay to review the call, the play was shown repeatedly on the north video board at Saluki Stadium.

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“I saw on the big screen, it looked like he was in to me,” Saluki fullback Jacob Garrett said. “But that’s out of my control, out of my hands.”

The loss was Southern’s second at home this season. Their first on Sept. 10 against SEMO ended with a touchdown with just 10 seconds to go. Both games seemed to end the same way: last-minute heartbreak for the home team.

“We’ve had two games now that have come down to the wire like that, at home,” Garrett said.

There were some crucial things that the Salukis did right on Saturday. They allowed no sacks and committed no turnovers. As mentioned, the passing offense turned in a record-breaking performance. However, none of that really matters when the team finishes on the wrong end of a tough loss.

“There’s really no moral victory,” Hill said. “This is a loss, and we’ve lost two in a row.”

The Saluki running game never got going, with 22 carries for a net yardage of 55. Meanwhile, the defense allowed 131 yards on the ground and 330 through the air, as well as the most passing touchdowns given up at Saluki Stadium (5). Northern Iowa scored on six of their nine meaningful possessions.

“This isn’t on one guy, or one series or anything,” Hill said. “There’s a lot of things that we could correct and get better. And that’s what we’ll do.”

Southern Illinois will have 14 days for this loss to linger. The Salukis have an unusually late bye week next week before they prepare for a clash with one of the top teams in the FCS in North Dakota State on Nov. 12.

“You’d feel a lot better if you were going home tonight with a win,” Hill said. “But we’re not.”

After nine straight weeks of games, including two losses to end that stretch, the Salukis are ready to rest up and prepare for the final two games in November that could determine whether they make the FCS playoffs or not.

“They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do for nine weeks in a row, plus a month of training camp,” Hill said. “We’ve been coming to work here for 100 days in a row.

This rough stretch in the Valley schedule is very similar to the early-season struggles they had in non-conference play; a blowout loss to Incarnate Word to start the year, and the aforementioned SEMO loss.

After that game, the team regrouped and beat Northwestern to start a five-game winning streak. If Southern can recreate that magic heading into November, they will be just fine.

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

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