Nationally ranked SIU opens 2023 with back-to-back wins

SIU 49-Austin Peay 23; SIU 14-NIU 11

By Jim Beers

CARBONDALE – The Southern Illinois University Saluki Football Team is off to a great start this 2023 season with back-to-back wins in their first two games.  Last Saturday September 2 the Salukis hosted Austin Peay in the season opener and dominated the Governors, 49-23, to start 1-0 at Saluki Stadium.

On Saturday September 9 SIU traveled to Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, Illinois and faced the Football Bowl Sub-Division (FBS) Huskies. It was the Dawg’s annual “big game” of the year against a “Bowl Sub-Division” team. The Salukis never trailed in the 14-11 win over the Huskies.

SIU’s Jaelin Benefield (3), a 5’11”, 174 Lb. running back, is chased by Austin Peay’s Christian Lewis (14) a 5’11”, 200 Lb. defensive back at the 7:50 mark of the 3rd quarter in the season opener for the Salukis Saturday September 2. Benefield scored a touchdown to put the Dawgs up, 34-0. The extra point kick was good, and SIU led, 35-0. 

The victory made it seven-straight wins over in-state opponents and gave the Salukis an undefeated early season record at 2-0. Last year SIU was the only Football Championship Sub-division (FCS) team to beat a “Power-Five” FBS Team when SIU beat Northwestern.

The Salukis came into the NIU game Nationally Ranked in the Top-25 of all FCS Teams. The Dawgs were ranked 23 in the Coaches Poll and 24 in the Stats Perform FCS Poll.  SIU has been Nationally Ranked for 32 weeks since 2020.

The 2023 Football Salukis storm the field Saturday September 2 on opening day at SIU Saluki Stadium when the Salukis hosted the Austin Peay Governors. The Dawgs dominated the Governors throughout the game to win, 49-23 and start the season 1-0. Jim Beers Photo

Salukis dominate Austin Peay Governors, 49-23, at home to jump start 2023

The Salukis hosted Austin Peay, a former Ohio Valley Conference team, in the season opener at Saluki Stadium on the Campus of Southern Illinois University.

It was “Hogs and Dawgs Day” and “Faith and Family Day” at SIU. Approximately 50 local motorcyclists roared onto the Saluki Stadium turf during pre-game activities and “revved” their engines at kick-off of the game in support of the Dawgs.

Three former Chester High School Marching YellowJackets now play at Southern Illinois University in the Marching Salukis. Pictured (left to right) are Cesar Marquez, alto saxophone, Blake Zappa, trumpet, and Mikayla Straight, mellophonium, The three are prospering at SIU and are very active in the Marching Salukis. Shown here they prepare to take the field for the halftime show at the opening day SIU vs Austin Peay game. Jim Beers Photo 

Local family and religious groups were in attendance to help support the team as they took on the Governors. One such group was the Chester High School YellowJacket Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCS) group. They were 26-strong with additional sponsors, Christa Krieg and Jacob Wente, to cheer on the Salukis.

The SIU Football Student Section, better known as the “Dawg Pound” was full and the students did not disappoint the team as they provided “rowdy, non-stop support” for the team throughout the game.

SIU maintained a tradition Saturday September 2 when the Football Salukis hosted Austin Peay for the season opener. The “Freshman Run” or “Saluki Sprint” was held at pre-game to welcome the new students and freshman to SIU athletics. Just prior to the arrival of the team, hundreds of freshmen stormed the field running through the tunnel formed by the 2023 Marching Salukis. This tradition began years ago and is held currently as a kickoff, not only for the football season but for the college careers of the new SIU students! Jim Beers Photo

A recent tradition titled, “The Freshman Run” was also continued at the home opener as hundreds of SIU New Students, mostly freshmen, stormed the field and ran through the tunnel formed by the 2023 Marching Salukis to lead the team on the field during Pre-game.

Three former Chester High School students, one senior and two who are freshmen, performed as members of the Marching Salukis. Blake Zappa, a senior trumpet player has marched for three years. Cesar Marquez, an alto saxophone player, and Mikayla Straight, a mellophonium player, made their debuts as college marching band musicians. All three were amazing!

Local motorcyclists roar onto the turf at Saluki Stadium Saturday September 2 when SIU hosted the Governors of Austin Peay. It was opening day at SIU and the “Hogs and Dawgs” motorcyclists were on hand to cheer the Salukis to victory. The bikes revved their engines on the opening kickoff to signal their support for the football players Their support apparently worked as the Salukis throttled the Governors, 49-23 to start the season 1-0. Jim Beers Photo

The Salukis took all of the extra attention to heart as they dominated the Governors throughout the entire game. The Saluki defense held Austin Peay without even a first-and-ten until late in the second quarter.

The offense established a strong, 35-0 lead until the middle of the third quarter when Southern started to substitute from their bench. One local radio announcer noted that the Saluki bench is so deep that even after substituting, SIU still continued to have success, rolling to a 49-23 win.

Immediately following the final buzzer signaling the end of the game, the SIU Marching Salukis blasted a rousing rendition of the SIU Fight Song, “Go Southern Go!” It was opening day of the 2023 Football Season Saturday September 2, and the Salukis hosted the Austin Peay Governors. SIU dominated the game winning 49-23 to start the season 1-0. Jim Beers Photo

Saluki Head Coach, Nick Hill, a former DuQuoin Indian stand-out quarterback, said, “For us to put together a game like that to start the season. I’m proud of them! Our defense just didn’t allow them to do anything, and then we were going on long drives.”

In the post-game meeting in the Saluki locker room, Coach Hill presented Antonio James, the new Saluki Defensive Coordinator, the game ball.

James was notified that he would be the new defensive coordinator just one day prior to the start of training camp. That abrupt move happened due to the fact that former defensive Coordinator, D.J. Vokolek left abruptly to join the staff of Northwestern Illinois University.

It was Faith and Family Day at SIU Saturday September 2 when the 2023 Football Salukis opened their season. The Dawgs hosted Austin Peay and the Chester High School Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) group attended the game to help cheer on the Salukis. Their “faith” in the Salukis apparently held true as the Dawgs dominated the Governors throughout the entire game, winning, 49-23. Jim Beers Photo

In the win over Austin Peay, 6th year quarterback, Nick Baker, from Rochester, Illinois, completed 16-of-23 passes for 219 yards, three of which were touchdowns. After his second completed pass, Baker moved into the school record book for most completed passes. He surpassed SIU Hall of Fame quarterback, Joel Sambursky, with the well-deserved honor.

In the win, SIU recorded a total of 432 yards. In that feat the Salukis used a wide variety of offensive weapons including 12 different players who ran the ball throughout the game. Romeir Elliott led the rushers with 39 yards and one touchdown. Justin Strong had 38 yards and one touchdown.

Nine Saluki players caught passes including Izaiah Hartrup who had five receptions and one touchdown and Jaelin Benefield who had three catches and one touchdown.

The stingy Saluki defense had four sacks, 10 tackles for a loss, a pair of interceptions and forced one fumble in the win. Their efforts were tremendous and made a huge impact on the positive outcome of the game.

With the win, the Salukis started the season on a high note and with a huge 49-23 victory. They also began the season with a 1-0 record, making a huge statement and gaining a lot of confidence and respect, not to mention a National Top-25 FCS ranking!

Southern Illinois defeats Northern Illinois, 14-11 to improve to 2-0

The Salukis traveled to DeKalb Saturday September 9 to face the Northern Illinois University Huskies in a non-conference matchup. This was the Salukis’ annual game against a team from the Football Bowl Sub-Division (FBS).

For most, smaller schools this game is titled a “Money Game” because the larger school from the bowl division typically pays the smaller school from the championship division to come play in their stadium.

 Football Bowl Sub-Division (FBS) schools are usually larger schools, have more scholarships to offer, have bigger, more recruited players and have post-season “bowl” games. Football Championship Sub-Division teams (FCS) are smaller, have fewer scholarships, less-recruited players and have a post-season tournament to determine the champion of the year.

NIU is an FBS team while SIU is a FCS team. The FBS-FCS games are typically early-season games and the bigger FBS team most often wins. For example, going into the UNI game, FCS teams recorded a most disappointing record of 0-45 against FBS teams. The Salukis ruined that record by defeating the Huskies. Last year SIU was the only FCS team to beat a Power Five team when it beat Northwestern.

In the win over NIU, SIU recorded 219 yards while NIU recorded 360. The Salukis passed for 148 yards and NIU had 297 yards in the air. SIU committed six penalties for 39 yards while NIU committed seven penalties for 70 yards. The Salukis recorded 12 first downs and the Huskies had 18 first downs. SIU had possession of the ball for 24:01 and NIU had possession for 35:59.

The game was scoreless until the 1:58 mark in the first quarter when SIU’s quarterback, Nick Baker scored the Saluki’s first touchdown of the game on an 8-yard run. Jake Baumgarte kicked the extra point. Time of possession on the 5-play, 70 yard scoring run was 2:48.  The Salukis led, 7-0 after one quarter of play.

The game was locked throughout the second quarter with the score remaining 7-0 at halftime.

Right away in the third quarter (11:45) SIU running back Romeir Elliott, at 5’6” and 175 Lbs., scored SIU’s second touchdown of the game on a 10-yard run. The effort took 5-plays and covered 57 yards with another time of possession of 2:48. Thomas Burks kicked the extra point. The Dawgs led, 14-0.

With 5:35 to play in the 3rd quarter, NIU scored its first points of the game as Jake Siebert kicked a 27-yard field goal. That scoring drive took 6:10 and covered 65 yards. Southern Illinois led, 14-3 after three quarters of action.

The Huskies made the game interesting in the last quarter and scored its first touchdown of the game on a 62-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Rocky Lombardi to Kacper Rutklewicz at the 14:13 mark. Lombardi then passed for two-extra points to bring the Huskies within three points of the Salukis, 14-11.

The final 14:13 was a lock with neither team able to score, but both teams threatened several times till the final buzzer sounded!

SIU’s special-teams kicker, Nathan Torney “mis-fired” a rugby-style punt with just 2:31 remaining in the game. This punt went only 7-yards and put the Huskies at SIU’s 46 yard line.

With NIU seriously threatening to score and resting at SIU’s 35 yard line, Huskie quarterback Rocky Lombardi, faced 2-and 12.

On the next play, Lombardi launched a deep pass down the middle of the field with 33-seconds remaining in the game. At the last second, SIU’s Ubayd Steed, a 5’11” 188 Lb. safety, intercepted the pass, giving the ball back to SIU. The Dawgs held on to run the clock out and end the game, winning 14-11.

Early in the game, the SIU defense did a fantastic job of stalling the NIU running game allowing just 1.9 yards per carry. The Huskies came into the game expecting to have their way running the ball. The Saluki defense stole the show today. The Dawgs had three key interceptions to save the day!

Coach Nick Hill said, “At halftime I told the players we now have to find a way to win ball games. No matter what it takes, we have to find ways to win close games. You walk off the field just proud we put together a team that can win football games a lot of different ways.”

“You know that old saying, defense wins championships. All American safety P.J. Jules was tough on defense with 11 tackles and three huge pass breakups.”

With the win, SIU started the season undefeated at 2-0. The win also gave SIU its seventh-straight victory over an Illinois opponent and its 6th game in school history beating a Football Bowl Sub-Division team. Three of those were games coached by Nick Hill including UMass, Northwestern, and Northern Illinois University.

Coach Nick Hill was very proud of his players after the game. He said, “For us to win a one possession football game here, on the road, against a MAC opponent was pretty special. You don’t have good offenses and defenses without the players. I feel like our personnel is really good. They are fast, they are physical!”

Next up for the Salukis, 2-0, will be a local rivalry at Southeast Missouri University in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. The annual battle with SEMO is otherwise known as “The War for the Wheel.” The RedHawks of the Ohio Valley Conference will be coming off a big win against a Division I newcomer Lindenwood Saturday September 2.

The RedHawks will be hosting only their second game in their brand-new remodeled Houck Stadium on SEMO’s campus.  SEMO is 1-1. Kickoff is 6:00 P.M. Both teams are nationally ranked in FCS polls.