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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

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On the front lines: What makes SIU vs. SEMO so special

Lylee Gibbs
Abdou Toure (70) holds the wheel up to the Dawg Pound in celebration as the Salukis claim the wheel at the very end of the fourth quarter Sept. 16, 2023 at Houck Stadium in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

Photo editor Lylee Gibbs and I went to the 91st War for the Wheel on Sept. 16. It was the second time we’d traveled to a Saluki game after going to Arch Madness back in March. This time, the destination was Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where we would witness one of the best football games either of us had ever seen.

One of the first things we noticed as we made our way to the sideline that afternoon was the titular Wheel trophy displayed in the northwest end zone. Specifically, it occurred to us that one of the spokes on the bottom half of the wheel was broken.

I asked Saluki head coach Nick Hill about it after the game. According to Hill, he had been told by Southeast Missouri State head coach Tom “Tuke” Matukewicz that it was damaged sometime after the Redhawks first won it in 2018.


Indeed, the damage has appeared in every photo of the Wheel since; we just hadn’t noticed until seeing the trophy in-person. Judging by how it has not been fixed in the half-decade since, it’s safe to say that the missing spoke will remain as a symbol of the rivalry for years to come.

Of the six times the Wheel has been fought for since 2018, four of those games were decided in the final 25 seconds of play. SEMO won on touchdowns in 2018 and 2022, while SIU won with a field goal in 2020 and a touchdown in 2023.

The lengths that these teams will go to, and the tenacity it takes to be the best among them, can be symbolized by the Wheel’s damaged spoke. Because just as that spoke was perhaps left in the locker room after a particularly rowdy celebration, so too has everything been left on every field these two share; whether it be in Carbondale, Cape Girardeau or even Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

No matter the damage in the everlasting War between these two teams, they both know that in representing their schools, their hard work and dedication was worth it for the chance to hoist the Wheel.

The Agony of Defeat

One year ago, I wrote an article detailing the history of the War for the Wheel. At the time, SIU football was preparing to welcome SEMO for yet another chapter in their century-plus long rivalry. Little did I know that the next two entries in that feud would be some of the most thrilling games anyone on that field would ever play.

For that story in 2022, I relied very heavily on the official SIU football record book, picking out every mention of SEMO. In this year’s version, the term “SEMO” appears 109 times in several different contexts including descriptions, statistics and all-time records.


But no matter how much I would dig through old newspapers to get accounts of half-century old games and comb through box scores of more recent outings, I was never going to be able to capture the essence of the rivalry purely through research.

If I wanted to experience the War, I had to be on the front lines.

On Sept. 10, 2022, the Salukis hosted the Redhawks in what was the first matchup in four years during which Saluki Stadium housed a full capacity crowd. Southern had won the 2020 matchup in Carbondale amidst a pandemic-influenced attendance.

The game was a back-and-forth slugfest, with each team leading on five separate occasions. SIU twice took the lead in the fourth quarter, with a Justin Strong touchdown at the 2:50 mark seemingly setting the Salukis up for victory.

However, the Redhawks would land the final blow, scoring a touchdown with just 11 seconds left to grab a win from the jaws of defeat. Some Saluki fans claimed controversy due to two pass interference calls on the final drive, both coming on what would have otherwise been game-sealing fourth-down stops. But regardless, the record shows a SEMO win.

At that time, it was perhaps the best football game I had ever been to in-person. I was seated inside the press box at Saluki Stadium, and could feel every up and down of that game as the Saluki faithful reacted just beyond our windows. Despite the loss, the 2022 game felt like the best version of what the SIU-SEMO rivalry could offer.

Then, on Sept. 16, 2023, the Salukis did the exact same thing.

The Thrill of Victory

Seeking revenge for their controversial loss a year prior, Southern Illinois went to Cape Girardeau looking to get the Wheel right back. To begin, it seemed like the trophy would be extending its stay on the west side of the Mississippi River, as SEMO held a 15-0 halftime lead.

Reportedly, head coach Nick Hill tore into the offense in the locker room, specifically calling out quarterback Nic Baker. To that point, the sixth-year senior had an 8-for-13 stat line, throwing two interceptions in SEMO territory and gaining just 54 yards through the air.

Baker and the offense responded with an historic second-half performance. His 409 yards in the final two quarters turned what was originally a lackluster passing game into the second-best in school history by that metric.

If not for some untimely turnovers in the red zone, Southern Illinois might have completely flipped the game around. Instead, it found itself down by just five points near the end of regulation.

The Salukis’ first attempt at a game-winning drive started off promising. However, once Southern reached the SEMO 30-yard line – near where Baker had thrown both of his picks in the second quarter – the drive stalled out.

Armed with former All-American running back Geno Hess in the backfield, the Redhawks’ sole goal was to milk as much of the 3:39 left on the clock as possible. Hess’s first three rushing attempts averaged five yards each, and it seemed inevitable that the Redhawks would retain the Wheel.

Southern began using its three timeouts, a last ditch effort to stop the clock from ticking away and dashing its hopes at completing the comeback. The defense would step up one last time and forced a third down, which SEMO would not convert.

Baker described his thought process during this play, having begun warming up on the sidelines. He expected a stop would force SEMO to punt the ball, likely setting the Salukis up with a long field ahead of them, needing a touchdown to win.

Instead, redshirt freshman Desman Hearns went above just tackling Hess. He ripped the ball out of the running back’s hands, giving the Salukis possession just 38 yards away from the end zone.

Rather than needing several long completions to have a prayer, Southern Illinois could run the offense it was comfortable in. Short throws, checkdowns and medium gains were all on the table, since the Salukis had a short field in addition to saving a timeout that would have been used if not for the SEMO fumble.

Ultimately, it came down to one play: 4th-and-6 from the 9-yard line. The Wheel stood displayed just behind the end zone that would decide which team would possess it for the next 12 months.

Baker found receiver Izaiah Hartrup in the back of that end zone, and the Salukis had taken the lead.

Looking up at the scoreboard, everyone in the stadium realized the significance. Not just of the score, but also the time remaining on the clock.

11 seconds left.

The Legacy of College Sports

Sports has a way of sometimes being more poetic than fiction. If I had mentioned in my article in September 2022 that the next two games of the rivalry would not only be some of the best in its long history, but would end in the exact same fashion with the roles reversed, my editor would have immediately sent it back for a rewrite.

And yet, it happened. I would know. I was on the sidelines for it, because Houck Stadium’s press box was inaccessible due to renovations.

Because of that, I was able to capture the play on video, as well as the entire drive. I also filmed the team’s celebration as they stormed the field and ran straight for the Wheel. It was an experience I could have only watched from afar if I had been anywhere else but field level.

The War for the Wheel – only being called that since the trophy’s establishment in 2018 – has been going on in an official capacity since 1913. Sometimes, when a sport – and specifically, one matchup – is played long enough, it feels like everything has happened. And yet, the War continues to deliver with instant classic after instant classic.

I have been told that the Wheel was once again banged up after this year’s locker room celebration. Over the years, it is likely inevitable that the trophy will suffer damage, either from intense jubilation or gradual wear and tear. Every mark, every scuff, every dent and certainly every broken piece will serve as a symbol of the rivalry.

Even though the trophy is in its relative infancy, the players hoisting it are adding to an immense legacy. Every mark on the Wheel is a reminder of the War it took to earn it. The War that has been fought 91 times by generations of student athletes. Players born in the nineteenth century started the legacy that those born in the twenty-first century now continue.

I will be graduating this December, and I’ve thought a lot about my relationship with college sports as a soon-to-be former student. Once I walk across that stage, I will graduate to becoming a forever fan of the Salukis. But, as a writer, my impact on Southern Illinois University will be limited to just the years I have attended here.

Depending on my future path, I might never cover the War for the Wheel again. After just two entries in a century-long feud, my mark on this rivalry from a journalism perspective is over.

But that’s the nature of college sports. The same can be said for quarterback Nic Baker, who led the offense for three of the 91 matchups. His legacy in this game is tremendous, and it is finite. When the next starting quarterback takes the first snap of the 92nd War for the Wheel, he will be carrying on that legacy that Baker and many others before him left behind.

When the 2024 Salukis go to defend the Wheel at Saluki Stadium, they will see the broken spoke. They will remember the Wars that Southern Illinois and Southeast Missouri State have gone through, not just in the past six years, but throughout the entire histories of both schools.

And then, they will create history of their own. They will play the Redhawks again, just as they have always done, and they will create magical moments. It might not be with 11 seconds left, and it might not set school records, but it will still be just as significant. Because they will have left every piece of them they can give on the field, in order to join that legacy.

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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