The Salukis (1-2) entered Saturday having lost two games in wildly different but equally ugly ways. A blowout loss to Incarnate Word was followed up by a narrow defeat against Southeast Missouri State and the once-ranked Salukis were suddenly 0-2.
Against the Big Ten’s Northwestern Wildcats on Saturday, though, SIU looked like a totally different team. Nic Baker led Southern Illinois to their first win of the season as he threw for 241 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for another. It was just what the doctor ordered for a team that was reeling heading into late September.
The game started slowly for both SIU and Northwestern. After trading punts for much of the first quarter, though, the Wildcats strung together a 14-play, 88-yard drive that ended in a touchdown.
The Salukis answered well, however, as Baker connected with tight end Tyce Daniel for a 57-yard score. It was the longest play SIU would have all day and it tied the game at 7-7 early in the second quarter.
Northwestern again put up a long drive to regain the advantage shortly after. Running back Evan Hull, who rushed for 124 yards 25 carries, got his only touchdown of the day with a one-yard push that put the Wildcats back on top 14-7.
SIU LB Branson Combs picks off Ryan Hilinski ... First play after the INT Nic Baker hits Jacob Garrett for the 18 yard TD! pic.twitter.com/qPqxokrpxA— @ (@FTBeard7) September 17, 2022
After a missed opportunities in the second quarter by the offense, it was the Southern Illinois defense that stepped up to the plate. Following a missed field goal, SIU held the Wildcats to a quick three-and-out. Shortly after Baker’s only interception of the game, linebacker Branson Combs returned the favor and picked off Northwestern’s Ryan Hilinksi.
From there it took Baker and company only one play to draw things even once more. Fullback Jacob Garrett hauled in the first of his two touchdowns on an 18-yard catch. Another missed SIU field goal late in the half, though, ensured the score would remain tied at the break.
It wasn’t until early in the third that kicker Jake Baumgarte finally overcame his kicking woes. He hit a 45-yarder that gave the Salukis their first lead 17-14. Southern Illinois’ defense continued to deliver stops but, as the fourth frame got underway, Northwestern tied things again with a field goal of their own.
From there, however, SIU began to turn the tides of the game. Aided by a big pass interference call, Baker and the offense drove 74 yards in nine plays. Garrett capped the excursion with an eight-yard touchdown catch.
Midway through the fourth, the Wildcats were driving to tie yet again. This time though, with 8:15 to play, Hull fumbled and Chris Harris Jr. jumped on it to give possession back to the Salukis.
It was the second Northwestern fumble moments later that sealed it. SIU fell on it again and the offense got one last touchdown to ice the game.
Despite allowing four fourth down conversions, the Salukis defense forced four turnovers and ensured that their offense won the time of possession battle. Baker piloted that offense that put up 357 total yards and four touchdowns.
This win has to feel good for head coach Nick Hill. His Salukis came into this season ranked in the STATS Top 15 but since had fallen out in a bad way. Is a triumph over Northwestern enough to get SIU back into the Top 25? We’ll next this week.
The Salukis begin MVC play when they take on North Dakota next Saturday.