DAnte Cox (2) leaps into the air in an attempt to complete the pass from quarterback Nic Baker (8) as he approaches the end zone as the Salukis face Austin Peay at home for the season opener Aug. 2, 2023 at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale, Ill.
D’Ante’ Cox (2) leaps into the air in an attempt to complete the pass from quarterback Nic Baker (8) as he approaches the end zone as the Salukis face Austin Peay at home for the season opener Aug. 2, 2023 at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale, Ill.
Lylee Gibbs

Salukis soar in season opener, dominate Austin Peay 49-23 at home

In their first true home game to begin a season since 2017, the Southern Illinois Salukis delivered to their fans at Saluki Stadium, defeating the Austin Peay Governors by a score of 49-23.

“I think we came out and played a great game,” cornerback DJ Johnson said.

It was a classic scenario where SIU took the lead early on and never looked back, playing a cohesive game at all three levels, sparked by their defense, who shut down an Austin Peay squad that averaged 31 points a game last season.

“The key to the game in the first half is our defense didn’t allow them to do anything,” coach Nick Hill said.

A big portion of that was done by stuffing the Governors’ rushing attack.

“We stopped the run early and forced them to pass the ball out to the perimeter,” Johnson said.

Johnson capitalized on the latter as he hauled in an interception in the third quarter. Austin Peay could only muster 39 yards on the ground on 23 attempts, and the team didn’t collect a first down until about 3:45 remaining in the first half. It made things easier for the Saluki offense who converted on advantageous field position throughout the game.

“It makes my life a lot easier knowing they’re giving us good field position not letting them get any yards,” quarterback Nic Baker said. “…I don’t know if I’ve been a part of something like that; they were super dominant.”

Their trio of drives to begin the game resulted in three-and-outs, but when Southern got its turn on offense, it picked apart the Governors’ defense and the clock.

SIU totaled a time of possession of 12:45 in the opening frame, capitalizimg with a touchdown on the opening drive. Baker initially scrambled on the play, but later looked up and found Justin Strong in the front corner of the endzone, putting the Salukis out in front 7-0.

The first drive of the season for the Dawgs was also where Baker placed himself at the top of a school leaderboard, completing the most passes in SIU history. But the quarterback remains focused on the task at hand.

“You can’t be thinking about that stuff, it’s gonna come if I do the work during the week,” Baker said.

His work paid off as his play behind center was excellent, going 16-23 (70%) from behind center for 219 yards and three touchdowns with a 192.6 passer rating. He spread the love to different receivers, with three different Salukis catching each of Baker’s touchdown passes and two of them, Izaiah Hartrup and Jaelin Benefield, eclipsing 70 yards receiving.

“Just looking out there and knowing whatever play is called that I got people that really want to go make a play and want the ball every time…it gives you confidence out there,” Baker said. “Much rather have it that way than the other way.”

Two huge turnovers in the first half kept the momentum of the game on SIU’s side. Defensive end Devin Cowan got a strip sack that the Dawgs recovered and took over near the red zone in Austin Peay territory. Strong then got his second score of the game, taking the ball into the end zone from a yard out.

Then linebacker Dune Smith completed the tip drill in the waning minutes of the second quarter, and took his first career collegiate interception 26 yards for another Saluki touchdown that pushed the score to 28-0.

“It was a special moment,” Smith said. “At the beginning of the game I was kind of down because I wasn’t making a lot of plays…but I kept my head up…knew I had to take it to the house for my team.”

Defensive coordinator Antonio James continued to receive praise from those around him, as Smith said James has instilled in his players to not allow more than 100 yards rushing in a game this season.

“All the defense put that chip on their shoulder because last year we weren’t able to finish games…everyone dialed in together and went out and played hard,” Smith said.

James’ defense flew over the play and didn’t allow the Governors’ to get on the scoreboard until near the end of the third quarter. It came on a 29-yard field goal, but by that time it was 35-3 in the Salukis’ favor. Austin Peay would add three touchdowns in the final quarter on a SIU defense that mixed backups into the rotation.

“He (James) called a great game, outside of football, he’s a great guy…I really knew he was going to be a great fit for the defensive coordinator the first day he got the job,” Smith said.

Smith’s sentiments were echoed by his head coach, who said he gave James the game ball.



“I think he’s going to be a great head coach one day,” Hill said.

The game was so out of reach that some younger players got an opportunity to gain some experience and get invaluable game reps that they can build off of for the future, including four freshmen on defense and backup quarterback Hunter Simmons.

“That’s huge for him…you can’t replicate that…that’s huge for him because he’s a special kid and he’s going to be super good,” Baker said on Simmons’ play in the fourth quarter.

After opening last season with a 64-29 loss at Incarnate Word, the Salukis flipped the script this year by kicking off with a huge win in front of their home crowd.

“For us to put together a game like that to start the season, I’m proud of them,” Hill said.

Now they’ll look to continue this level of play as they hit the road for two matchups, starting with the Northern Illinois Huskies (1-0) on Sept. 9 at 2:30 p.m.

Sports reporter Howard Woodard can be reached at [email protected].

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