Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Grammy-worthy talent coming to 45th Sunset Concert Series beginning June 13
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Saluki softball huddles together before facing the California Golden Bears in the first round of the NCAA Regional May 17, 2024 at Tiger Park in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Photo provided by Saluki Athletics
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Baker to Hartrup caps rally to win the Wheel

SIU football defeats rival SEMO 26-25
SIU’s game-winning touchdown and post-game celebration after winning the 2023 War for the Wheel Sept. 16, 2023 in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

After a 370-day residency in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, the Wheel will return to Carbondale after the No. 15/18 Southern Illinois Salukis (3-0) rallied to upset the No. 13/15 Southeast Missouri State Redhawks (1-2) on the road by a score of 26-25 on Saturday night.

“It’s a game we’ll always remember for sure,” head coach Nick Hill said.

The pivotal play of the 91st edition of the SIU-SEMO rivalry came with just 11 seconds left, when quarterback Nic Baker found wide receiver Izaiah Hartrup in the back of the end zone on 4th-and-6 from the 9-yard line.


When asked where that play ranks among his top moments as a Saluki, the four-year starting quarterback of 30 SIU games said “right now it’s number one. I can’t think of anything else.”

That touchdown was made possible by redshirt freshman safety Desman Hearns ripping the ball out of the hands of the former All-American running back Geno Hess. That gave Southern the field position needed to set up the game-winning score.

“He was holding the ball like a loaf of bread,” Hearns said. “So I went down, I stripped the ball and got it. I tried to score, but someone grabbed me.”

Hearns played in just his fifth career game on Saturday, but has already had a major impact. His forced fumble came just one week after he had a critical fourth-quarter interception to help SIU hold its 14-11 lead against Northern Illinois.

“Defense, we’re always preaching that. Punch the ball out, get the ball back for the offense,” Hearns said. “The more times the offense has the ball in their hands, the better chances they have scoring and us winning the game.”

Hartrup making the winning catch marks a significant point in his journey as a Saluki. The last time these two teams met, he was forced to watch from the sidelines after an injury kept him from playing in 2022. His impact in this year’s edition of the rivalry is undeniable, with two fourth-quarter touchdowns.

“I would probably say this is my favorite win,” Hartrup said. “Not just at SIU, but just my favorite win in general in my life.”


Within the context of the rivalry, Saturday’s contest served as revenge for the Salukis. This time last year, the two teams were at Saluki Stadium, and it was SEMO that came away with the game-winning score with 11 seconds left.

In the 2023 edition, history repeated itself with the roles reversed, and the Wheel will be returning to Carbondale as proof of the Saluki victory.

“We all know how big this rivalry is,” Hartrup said. “So to bring that [the Wheel] home, we’re definitely happy about that.”

This time around, SIU was in hostile territory. But with the Dawg Pound situated directly behind the Saluki bench, as well as many traveling fans and alumni making the 50-mile trip, it still felt like an environment that Southern Illinois could feed off of.

“I thought the atmosphere was outstanding. Our fans were outstanding,” Hill said. “Any time you can go on the road and feel like the momentum switched and you kinda have the home field advantage, is big.”

Before Hearns’s forced fumble, the turnover margin had favored the Redhawks heavily. Between Baker tossing two interceptions in enemy territory during the second quarter, and Salukis receivers committing fumbles on back-to-back drives in the third, Southern had several opportunities quite literally slip through their fingers.

The Saluki offense struggled for much of the game, including getting shut out in the first half. SEMO went into the locker room with an abnormal 15-0 lead after scoring two field goals, a safety and adding a touchdown near the end of the half.

Baker would finish with 462 yards on 37-for-51 passing, tossing three touchdowns against two interceptions. While the record books will credit the full game for a performance that tallied the second-most passing yards in school history, more than 400 of those yards came in the second half alone.

Hill said that he called out Baker’s play at halftime, having struggled through the first 30 minutes. What followed was a performance that essentially erased a forgettable first half.

“He doesn’t get rattled,” Hill said. “He can have the worst two quarters that you could possibly have as an offensive player, in his eyes; he holds himself to a high standard. But at halftime, he just looks you in the eye and says ‘I got you.’”

Baker now holds the top three passing performances in school history, as his total on Saturday topped his “big day” against SEMO in 2021, and fell just shy of the record, a game featuring a “one yard short” hail mary against Northern Iowa in 2022.

[Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated that Baker had 458 passing yards. This has since been corrected in the official box score, and that correction is reflected here.]

Southern briefly shifted momentum its way out of the break, quickly ending the shutout and cutting into the Redhawks lead with a touchdown by running back Ro Elliott. But even with that, the extra point was blocked, keeping the SEMO lead at two possessions.

Every point would count in this one, as proven several times throughout. After the Salukis forced a quick three-and-out, Baker found Vinson Davis on a 68-yard catch-and-run score to make the Redhawks lead 15-13, with the second-quarter safety serving as the difference.

SIU football is no stranger to tight games. In seven contests that ended in a one-possession margin, the Salukis went 2-5 in 2022. That has been a point of emphasis, as it may serve as the difference between success and failure in a tough Missouri Valley Conference.

“We understand, playing eight weeks in a row in the Missouri Valley… there are games like this that come down to one score,” Hill said. “They’re similar environments, they’re similar games, they’re physical games.”

In the second half, the Saluki defense held firm. The Redhawks only managed two scoring drives out of seven total in the second half. Without that unit’s efforts, Saturday’s game might have gotten out of hand without a chance for a comeback.

The offense seemed to find a gear after Hill’s halftime speech, as all of its drives ended inside the SEMO 30-yard line.

“In the second half, it felt like we were moving the ball at will,” Baker said. “It’s like, I’ve never been a part of something like this.”

However, two of those drives were stopped cold by red zone fumbles, and another resulted in a turnover on downs with just 3:39 left in the game.

Despite committing four total turnovers and having two more drives stall out on fourth downs, the Saluki defense never let the game get away. SEMO’s 15-point halftime lead was as large as it got all night; and outside of a lengthy touchdown drive for SEMO midway through the third quarter, the Redhawks only crossed midfield once in the second half.

“You still kept looking up, and like, we’re only two scores,” Hill said. “Then we get it to one score, and it was like, if our defense can keep getting us the ball back, I don’t think they can stop us right now with the rhythm that Nic’s playing with, and we felt good about some of the coverages they were playing.”

Saturday’s win marks the first time since 2014 that the Salukis have started 3-0. It is the first time since the 1983 National Championship season that SIU beat SEMO as well as an FBS (formerly Div. I-A) opponent.

Even with the victory, there is still plenty to work on. Aside from the turnover margin, one of the biggest issues the Salukis faced was penalties. Southern was flagged seven times, four of which resulted directly in SEMO first downs.

SIU converted on third down at just a 2-for-11 clip, but it went 4-for-6 on fourth down plays. That included three conversions across Southern’s two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter.

While SEMO converted far more often on third down, SIU actually had a slightly better rate when considering third and fourth downs combined; SEMO went 6-for-18, and SIU went 6-for-17.

SIU will go home and celebrate with the Wheel, as it enters the bye week. The Salukis’ next game will come on Sept. 30, as they will host the Missouri State Bears during Family Weekend to open up their Missouri Valley Conference schedule.

Check out the game highlights here:

Sports Editor 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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    John CasebeerSep 17, 2023 at 10:21 am

    Well written, thanks !