No. 15 SIU beats No. 13 SEMO 26-25 in annual War for the Wheel

Salukis start season 3-0 for the first time since 2014

By Jim Beers

CARBONDALE – The Southern Illinois University Saluki Football Team kept its undefeated 2023 football season in tact Saturday night September 16 when the traveled to Cape Girardeau, Missouri to take on the Southeast Missouri State Redhawks in a regional rivalry.

SIU players celebrate with the “Wheel” following the Saluki 26-25 win over the Redhawks in the 2023 “War for the Wheel” rivalry game Saturday September 16 at Houck Stadium in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Jim Beers Photo

The matchup was the first for both teams in which they were both nationally ranked. SEMO came into the game ranked No. 13 and SIU came into the game ranked No. 15. Both were ranked as such in the weekly Stats Perform FCS Football Poll. In the FBS Coaches Poll SEMO ranked 15 and SIU ranked 18.

Fans and players storm the field Saturday September 16 after the No. 15 SIU Salukis came back to beat the No.13 Redhawks, 26-25, in the 2023 rivalry game. With the win, the Salukis maintained their undefeated record of 3-0 for their best start since 2014. Jim Beers Photo

This rivalry game was likely the key FCS matchup game of the week for Week 3. SIU came into the game with an undefeated 2-0 record with wins over Austin Peay (49-23) and FBS team Northern Illinois (14-11). With the 26-25 win over SEMO the Salukis opened 2023 undefeated at 3-0.

SIU star quarterback Nic Baker passes in the game against SEMO Saturday September 16 at Houck Stadium in Cape Girardeau. After a 15-0 halftime SEMO lead, Baker orchestrated a 26-10 second-half comeback to beat the Redhawks, 26-25, and improve to 3-0 for the season. In the win, Baker completed 35-of-51 passes for 458 yards and three touchdowns. Baker threw the bullet pass in the end zone to SIU Wide receiver Izaiah Hartrup with 1:46 to play in the game which gave the Salukis the win. Jim Beers Photo

Previous best starts for the Salukis came in 2017 (2-0); 2014 (3-0); 2007 (3-0 against Division I teams). The September 16 contest against SEMO was the 91st for the two rivals which started in 1909. It was the 40th time the two teams met in Cape Girardeau. The record coming into the game was 43-39-8 in favor of SEMO. The SIU win in 2023 improved the Saluki record to 43-40-8 still with SEMO with the most wins.

D’Ante’ Cox, a 6’0″ 180 Lb. SIU wide receiver soars for a pass in the 26-25 win against SEMO Saturday September 16. The game at Houck Stadium was the annual rivalry game the “War for the Wheel” and the Saluki win evened the record at 3-3 with SEMO and SIU both having three wins apiece. In the win, Cox made five catches for a total of 64 yards. Jim Beers Photo

SIU entered the 2023 War for the Wheel with a record of 2-0 which included a 14-11 win over Bowl Division Northern Illinois last week. SEMO came into battle with a 1-1 record.

The “War for the Wheel” is an added attraction to the annual rivalry game that was introduced into the mix as a fun attraction in 2018 in which the winner gets to take possession of an old fashioned ships’ steering wheel and keep it for the following year until the next matchup.

Saluki players and fans celebrate on Houck Stadium turf after the final buzzer in the come-from-behind, 26-25, win over the Southeast Missouri State Redhawks Saturday September 16. Notice the prize “Wheel” that the Salukis won in the Annual War for the Wheel” battle. Jim Beers Photo

SEMO came into the game with a one-game lead over SIU in possession of the wheel. With the Saluki win September 16 the record of possessions is now equal with each team having three possessions.

Saluki star running back Ro Elliott is stopped in his tracks on a first half run at the SIU vs SEMO game Saturday September 16. In the 26-25 win over No.13 SEMO, the 5’6″, 175 Lb. Elliott had 56 receiving yards and 67 yards rushing with one touchdown. Jim Beers Photo 

9-15-18: SEMO (48-44)

9-29-19: SEMO (44-26)

10-30-20: SIU (20-17)

9-2-21: SIU (47-21)

9-10-22: SEMO (34-31)

90-16-23: SIU (26-25)

The game was a sell-out September 16 for the 2023 SEMO vs SIU game. The Redhawks were coming of a win last week over Lindenwold University, a second-year Division I team from St. Charles, Missouri.

It was also the second game for SEMO in their brand newly renovated Houck Stadium. Combined with SEMO’s national ranking it was a night that was high energy and promised to be a knock-down-drag-out contest.

SEMO came out hot and ready to play and held SIU scoreless the entire first half. The Saluki defense was tough and kept the Redhawks somewhat in check, but the Dawgs were sluggish on offense the opening half and allowed the Redhawks to get the crowd behind them throughout the first two periods.

SEMO scored its first 3 points on a field goal in the first quarter. The Redhawks led, 3-0 after one quarter of play. SIU’s defense was keeping the Redhawks in check the first quarter.

Early on in the second quarter SEMO scored three more points on another field goal and led 6-0 at the 13:13 mark. The Redhawks then added a touchdown and a touchback to end the second quarter leading, 15-0, at halftime.

At halftime SIU Head Coach, Nick Hill, challenged quarterback Nic Baker to make some plays. Baker said, “Coach called me out in front of the team and said I needed to make some plays. I challenge myself enough, but just hearing that and knowing my team needed me, I just had to get it done!”

P.J. Jules, SIU’s All-American safety, finished the game with a career-high 15 tackles. Jules said, “I knew that Baker would deliver. At halftime I looked at Nic and he looked at me and said. ‘I got you. Jules replied, ‘I got you too.’ He came through and we made it happen as a team!”

The second half the Salukis came alive and outscored the Redhawks, 26-10, to win the game. The SIU defense was also stellar and made big plays to hold the Redhawks in check throughout the final two quarters.

SIU scored its first touchdown early in the 3rd quarter, but missed the extra-point attempt as the Redhawks got a piece of the ball on the kick. The Salukis trailed, 15-6. That fired up both the team and the large Saluki fan base who came to support their undefeated team.

Following a good SIU defensive game to hold SEMO on its next possession, the Dawgs scored again at the 8:32 mark and this time kicked a successful extra point. SIU was within two points, 15-13. The Dawgs were now playing with confidence and made things happen.

With just 4:59 to play in the 3rd quarter, SEMO stuck again and made their extra point to extend their lead to nine points, 22-13. That is how the 3rd quarter would end.

The excitement was about to begin in the 4th quarter, but not without one last score from the Redhawks. The first 12 minutes of the period was an exciting defensive battle between both teams, but the Salukis seemed to have a slight edge.

With 7:52 to play in the game, the Saluki defense stalled a Redhawk drive, however, SEMO answered by hitting a field goal to extend their lead to 12 points, 25-13. That fired up the Redhawk faithful a bit, but the Dawgs would not stay leashed much longer. Further, little did they know, but last score would be SEMO’s last score of the game.

Just 12-seconds later SIU would score its third touchdown of the game and kicked a good extra point. SIU pulled within five points, 25-20 with 7:40 to play.

Both defenses battled for the next 7:25, but with just 15-seconds left, SIU scored its 4th and final touchdown of the night. That gave the Salukis a 26-25 lead. The Dawgs missed the two-point conversion attempt. Just 11-seconds remained on the clock.

On the kickoff the clock keeper failed to start the clock, causing a lot of confusion on the field. Officials finally took just 2-seconds off the clock. SEMO was given 9-seconds to attempt to score a “Hail Mary” play to win the game.

The SIU defense stood tall on SEMO’s two plays and the Salukis won the game over SEMO for a 26-25 defeat.

The second half was the key to the win as SIU quarterback stepped up his game as Coach Nick Hill asked of him at halftime. Baker stepped up by throwing for 400 yards in the half. It was Baker’s bullet pass to SIU’s junior wide receiver Izaiah Hartrup with 11-seconds to play that gave SIU the win.

In spite of two interceptions in the first half, Baker ended up completing 35-of-51 passes for 458 yards and three touchdowns. He also had 14 rushing yards.

It was a roller coaster game for the Dawgs as they turned the ball over four times. That included two fumbles inside the Redhawk 20-yard-line that appeared to be very potential Saluki scoring opportunities.

The one key play late in the game that led to the Saluki’s final winning score of the game was at the 1:46 mark in the 4th quarter when SIU safety, Desman Hearns, stripped the ball from SEMO star running back Geno Hess. That gave SIU the ball and the opportunity to score its winning points of the game.

Ro Elliott had 56 receiving yards and 67 rushing yards with one touchdown. Aidan Quinn caught six passes for 80 yards. Jaelin Benefield recorded 24 yards on three pass reception. Vinson Davis III caught eight passes for 126 yards. D’Ante Cox had 64 yards on five receptions. Izaiah Hartrup added 94 yards on seven receptions and two touchdowns.

Commenting on the SIU fans that came to support the Dawgs at SEMO, Coach Nick Hill said, “Our fans were outstanding. Any time you can go on the road and feel like the momentum switched and you kind of have the home-field advantage, it’s big. Shout out to Saluki Nation for making the trip. It’s a game we’ll always remember for sure!”