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

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Midnight strikes for Saluki football; No. 4 Idaho wins in overtime to eliminate SIU

Southern finishes 8-5 after a second-round exit
Saluki+football+kneels+together+in+prayer+in+the+locker+room+just+after+hosting+Missouri+State+for+Family+Weekend+Sept.+30%2C+2023+at+Saluki+Stadium+in+Carbondale%2C+Illinois.+
Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto
Saluki football kneels together in prayer in the locker room just after hosting Missouri State for Family Weekend Sept. 30, 2023 at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale, Illinois.

As Saturday became Sunday in the Midwest, Southern Illinois fans were glued to their televisions to watch Saluki football come closer to an upset than almost any other team in the second round of the FCS Playoffs, which had gone chalk throughout the day.

But just past midnight back home in Carbondale, Idaho kicker Ricardo Chavez hit a field goal from 29 yards out to send the Vandals to the quarterfinals with a 20-17 overtime win, and end the Salukis’ potential Cinderella run before it could truly begin.

“Heck of a football game to be a part of,” head coach Nick Hill said. “It’s tough coming up on the wrong end of it.”

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Although the contest came down to a final kick, several pivotal moments occurred leading up to Chavez’s game-winner. The Salukis led 10-0 at one point, and 17-10 late in the fourth quarter, forcing No. 4 Idaho to play catch-up for most of the night despite being the favorites in their home stadium.

“When we take the emotion out of the game, we’ll look back and see that we had our opportunities in this game to win it,” Hill said.

The Salukis got on the board first with a Ro Elliott rushing touchdown in the second quarter, and tacked on three more points after Idaho fumbled in its own territory on the next drive. Suddenly up by two scores, the result was as good as SIU could have asked for against one of the top teams in the country.

Idaho found some rhythm on its final drive before halftime, going into the break down 10-3. With a chance to add onto that Saluki lead at the start of the third quarter, running back Justin Strong fumbled inside the Idaho 30-yard line to keep the lead at one possession.

Both defenses held sturdy, holding each other to short, quick drives. Even as Idaho started to drive down the field, a Branson Combs interception kept the Vandals from getting into scoring territory. It was clear that if either team was going to make a dent, it would need to be something special.

That’s exactly what the Vandals got when Jermaine Jackson returned a punt 86 yards for Idaho’s first touchdown of the night. As the third quarter neared its end, the Salukis’ double-digit lead had evaporated despite a dominant defensive effort.

Southern’s ensuing drive saw the team move down the field and convert on a goal-to-go situation with Elliott’s second rushing touchdown, giving his team a 17-10 lead. Entering Saturday, the Salukis were 8-0 on the season when they scored more than 10 points.

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Idaho’s first drive of the fourth quarter ended with a fourth-down sack that could have been the dagger in the Vandals’ comeback efforts. Southern would receive the ball at midfield with 12 minutes to burn off the clock.

But instead of building on their one-score lead, the Salukis went backwards on every play before being forced to once again punt on 4th-and-23.

Quarterback Gevani McCoy led his offense down the field on what was a game-tying drive for Idaho, as the team had three passing plays of more than 20 yards on the same possession. When the Vandals scored with 4:17 left on the game clock, it was the first touchdown the Saluki defense had given up since Nov. 11, ending an 11-quarter streak without giving up a touchdown.

The Vandals lined up for seven plays in goal-to-go situations on that game-tying drive, including a 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line that resulted in an incomplete pass. However, SIU was flagged three times in that sequence, the most critical being a defensive pass interference on cornerback Mark Davis Jr. on that fourth-down stop that kept Idaho on the field.

Southern was given one more shot to win the game in regulation, receiving the kickoff with still four minutes left. The Salukis marched inside the Idaho 30-yard line, and kicker Jake Baumgarte lined up for a 41-yard field goal to try to send the Salukis to the quarterfinals. However, the kick was blocked, and for the first time in school history, the Salukis would be heading to overtime in a playoff game.

“We’ve had our struggles kicking the football this year, that’s noted,” Hill said. “…Looking back on it now, maybe could have taken a timeout to maybe take a shot or getting a little bit closer. Then you’re kinda playing with fire there a little bit too.”

SIU started overtime with the ball, but the offense could not replicate the rhythm it had established in the fourth quarter. The first pass sent the team backwards; the second fell incomplete; and the third – and final of Nic Baker’s hall of fame career – was intercepted by an Idaho defender.

“Tough way to end it, but honestly, I’m probably the one person at SIU who knows that feeling,” Hill, a former quarterback, said. “We got beat 20-17 to Joe Flacco and Delaware in the semifinals and my last pass was a pick too. And so, it’ll sting for a little while, but I don’t have any regrets in my career, and Nic Baker shouldn’t have any regrets for his career either.”

Knowing it only needed a field goal to win, the Idaho offense leaned on running back Anthony Woods to set up Chavez’s eventual walk-off kick. It would be the first time Idaho led all night, but all that would matter was what team was winning at the end of the game.

“I knew what type of effort and game we would come here and play,” Hill said. “They did that. They ended up making one more play than us, and [we] got beat.”

The Salukis finish their season with a record of 8-5 and another second-round exit. It is the third time in four years that SIU saw its season end in the second round, but 2023 was by far the closest the Salukis have come in recent years to advancing farther into the bracket.

Idaho (9-3) will stay home for the next week to host the No. 5 Albany Great Danes (10-3) in the quarterfinals of the FCS Championship.

Saturday marks the likely end to several seniors’ careers, including offensive stars Baker, Elliott and D’Ante’ Cox, and defensive impact players such as Devin Cowan, P.J. Jules and D.J. Johnson.

“To all our seniors, man, I really appreciate those guys,” Hill said. “That’s what I went around the locker room and told them all. Just appreciate them believing in me and coming to this program, and then just the ups and downs of the season, just the grit of this team is what I’ll always remember.”

The outgoing class of seniors has been with the team during its rise to national prominence, and 2024 will mark an inflection point for the program as it looks to sustain that success and build on it in the coming years.

“I wanted to keep going for them, just because it’s a special moment that they’ll always remember,” Hill said. “It felt like we had the team to do that. They’ve proven that this year.”

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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    RobertDec 3, 2023 at 6:39 pm

    Hahaha… SIU-C as a university has been on a steep downward trajectory for more than 30 years. As Warren Buffett says, “When the tied goes out, you find out who’s been swimming naked. All the junk that’s been hidden comes to the surface.” Enrollment down from its late 80s peak by 10,000 students. Seems impossible. But, an 8-5 football team in the low subdivision is what people focus on. What a crock. What a shame.

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