Cold streak continues for Saluki football; Loss to NDSU makes three straight

November 17, 2022

On February 27, 2021, coach Nick Hill’s Salukis scored one of the biggest wins in program history, an upset at home against North Dakota State. The Bison went into that game ranked No. 1 in the FCS with a 39-game winning streak, and SIU quarterback Nic Baker was making his first career start.

North Dakota State returned to Carbondale on Saturday, and the Salukis hoped for that same upset magic to happen. Instead, they fell short of striking again, as the Bison came away with a 21-18 victory. The loss extends Southern’s losing streak to three games, and brings them to 5-5 on the season.

“It was two good teams battling,” Hill said. “I’ve said that several times this year. We’ve got to find a way to be on the other end of it.”

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Ultimately, Southern Illinois’s last chance to sneak back into playoff consideration did not work out for them. While the final score was close, it rarely felt like the Salukis had control of the game, even when they had the lead.

That 10-7 lead, which the Salukis grabbed on a Jacob Garrett touchdown run with 5:18 to go in the third quarter, was immediately undercut by 30 yards worth of penalties – one for unsportsmanlike conduct and one for targeting – on the ensuing kickoff. This gave North Dakota State the field position needed to mount a touchdown drive, which gave the Bison a lead they would never relinquish.

“Penalties change the flow of the game,” Garrett said. “You could argue that we had all the momentum there, and then we kinda just nulled it with those two penalties.”

The Saluki defense held strong for most of the game. After giving up a touchdown on the first NDSU drive, Southern held the Bison to just 23 total yards on 16 plays across their next four possessions.

This came despite the offense struggling in the first half, as three of the first four SIU drives ended as punts in enemy territory, and an interception thrown by Baker, only his second since the SEMO game in September.

Despite those issues, the defense picked up the team, and helped it along by keeping the game close for most of the afternoon.

“When you’re a defensive player, you can’t let the situations of the game dictate how you’re gonna go out and play that series,” Hill said. “That’s what you are. You’re a defense. You’ve got to get your team out of trouble.”

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One of the more crucial offensive possessions for Southern came at the end of the first half. Down 7-0, the Salukis were given a short field after a punt, and only took one play to get inside the 10-yard-line with less than two minutes to go. Needing a score before the half, they gained two total yards on the first two downs.

On 3rd-and-goal from the NDSU 7, the Salukis called a trick play where Baker threw a lateral to offensive tackle Jake Green. The play went backwards, and Southern settled for a field goal. Had they scored a touchdown on that drive, they would have had a chance to tie the game later on.

“That’s definitely crucial,” Garrett said. “But at the time, it’s good to come away with points right there. That’s still a win-win kind of situation, where you want to finish the half well.”

Both offenses picked up in the second half. After the Bison began with a three-and-out, Southern marched down the field for a 13-play 60-yard drive capped off by Garrett’s rushing touchdown. After that, North Dakota State scored on its next two drives, which put the game out of reach for SIU.

While the contest ended in a three-point margin, that was aided by a late touchdown, which the Salukis scored with just 39 seconds left in the game to cut into an 11-point lead.

Southern Illinois won in many key statistical categories. They possessed the ball for more than 20 minutes in the first half, and held North Dakota State to just 1-for-4 on third down attempts.

However, those figures seemed to flip after halftime. NDSU was 5-for-7 on third downs in the second half, and had two drives of double-digit play counts to chew up clock when Southern Illinois needed it most.

“Key emphasis at practice is, get off the field on third downs,” senior linebacker Ma’kel Calhoun said. “Those third down completions really hurt us.”

Having been with Southern Illinois for six years, Calhoun faced the possibility of Saturday being his last home game as a Saluki. With playoff chances dwindling, that possibility came much closer to reality.

“Definitely a game that I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” he said. “Very emotional, sad loss.”

Saturday’s game felt symbolic of this Saluki team as a whole. While they showed the capability to hang with the best the Missouri Valley has to offer, one team came through when it faced adversity, while the other didn’t quite have enough to put it away.

Words cannot do justice to North Dakota State’s dominance over FCS football since 2011. The Bison have won nine FCS National Championships in 11 seasons, received votes in the AP Top 25 despite being in a lower level, and won at least a share of the Missouri Valley Football Conference title in every year that wasn’t shortened by a pandemic.

For the Salukis to play competitively with North Dakota State is an accomplishment in itself. Entering Saturday, the Bison had only played two FCS games this season where the final margin was one possession. But there are no moral victories for SIU when the team is on the losing end.

Southern’s upset of North Dakota State in 2021 proved that the team was not unbeatable, even by an unranked team like SIU has become during their recent losing skid. However, aside from that one loss, the Bison had not lost to an unranked FCS team since 2015. Even a relatively weaker NDSU – suffering two regular season losses for only the third time since 2011 – is still one of the best teams in the country.

The aforementioned 2021 upset propelledSouthern Illinois into the FCS rankings for the first time since 2014. They would stay there for the rest of that year and the next, before finally breaking a 23-week streak of appearing in the polls when they were upset at home by Southeast Missouri State in September.

After that SEMO upset, the Salukis pulled off the other marquee win in Hill’s tenure when they beat Northwestern, the first time SIU had beaten a Big Ten team since Hill was the team’s quarterback in 2006. It began a stretch of five straight wins, where Southern Illinois seemed on track for its third consecutive playoff berth, and possibly the MVFC title.

Then, the cracks started to show. Southern blew a 14-point lead against South Dakota, then-winless in the Valley, for its first loss in conference play. Then, a loss at home to Northern Iowa when a hail mary attempt fell just one yard short. Suddenly, the Salukis were facing the toughest task possible, with their season virtually on the line.

While the 2021 win over NDSU catapulted the Salukis into contention, this year’s loss may be the nail in the coffin for their postseason hopes.

Southern sits at 5-5 and faces the possibility of not only being left out of the FCS playoffs, but finishing the 2022 campaign with a losing record. It should be noted how many of those losses came down to the wire. Aside from an opening week blowout against Incarnate Word, every other Saluki loss was by a field goal or less.

“We were giving effort until the last whistle there. Ultimately we came up short,” Garrett said. “We just need to be able to finish those games. Our four losses, that’s been the telltale story.”

It’s been a bit of a pattern for Nick Hill’s teams to start strong, but struggle later in the season. Whether it be from fatigue due to late bye weeks, or other issues, it’s consistent enough to mention. In 2020-21, the Salukis lost three of their last five games. Last year, they lost four of their final six. On Saturday, they made it three straight losses with just one game to go.

While this season isn’t necessarily a disaster, it’s certainly a disappointment for everyone involved. Expectations were high, entering as the ninth-ranked team in the FCS. At times, the Salukis showed what they were capable of, from upsetting a Big Ten school to breaking off five straight victories in one of the toughest conferences in the country. But ultimately, the season will likely fall well short of any championship aspirations.

Saluki football is by no means in a dark age. We are well past the losing years that defined Hill’s early tenure. But given the elevated expectations, the program is underperforming what many thought it was capable of, including the players themselves. It’s not just about the North Dakota State loss, but it never should have come down to a game like this in the first place.

Southern Illinois will have its final regular season game on Nov. 19 when it visits Youngstown State (6-4, 4-3). The odds are not high that the Salukis will sneak into the playoffs, but Hill’s message to the team is to keep their head high. After all, anything can happen on a college football Saturday.

“We all have a job to do,” Hill said. “That doesn’t really affect us. No matter what our record is, we all here represent this school, this university, this program. You show up every single day ready to work, ready to grow and get better, until they tell you your season’s over.”

 

Staff reporter Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BrandynWilcoxen. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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