Beating Northwestern ‘lit the fire’ for Saluki defense after rough start to season

Southern Illinois safety Antonio Fletcher had 10 tackles Saturday in the upset win against Northwestern in Evanston. (Photo by

By Barry Bottino

EVANSTON — The Southern Illinois defense concluded the first two weeks of the season with some mind-boggling numbers. The Salukis gave up 98 points, 783 passing yards and 12 touchdowns.

And then there was Evanston.

Of all places, the Salukis turned their defense around in a big way against the Big Ten’s Northwestern Wildcats on Saturday in a 31-24 triumph that was a welcome change.

“Against a team that moved the ball really well against two Power Five opponents – Nebraska and Duke – I felt like we really made them grind and earn everything,” SIU coach Nick Hill said after the game.

SIU collected four turnovers and tightened up considerably after falling behind 14-7 in the first half, when it allowed the Wildcats to score on two of their first three drives.

The Salukis halted seven of the Wildcats’ next nine drives, and the next NU touchdown didn’t come until 79 seconds were left in the game.

“This really lit the fire,” SIU safety Antonio Fletcher told Prairie State Pigskin. “We’re just going to keep on going every week. This is the start. We had to bounce back. It didn’t matter that it was the Big Ten. We had to get a W.”

Fletcher, a hard-hitting transfer from FBS Arkansas State, had 10 tackles and a pass breakup in the game.

On a day when numerous defensive players contributed, fellow safety P.J. Jules led the team with 11 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.

Linebackers Branson Combs and Zach Burrola both had interceptions. Defensive lineman Richie Hagarty had a key forced fumble in the second half.

Seven players combined for six tackles for loss, and five different players each had a pass breakup.

Antonio Fletcher

“We just played more for each other,” Fletcher said. “Nobody was out there feeling like they had to do something for himself. After every play – even the plays where we gave up some yards – we didn’t let anybody pout on the sidelines. Everybody was picking each other up.

“I feel like that was the big difference,” he said.

After putting together scoring drives of 88 and 75 yards in the first half, Northwestern averaged 25.3 yards on its last nine possessions.

Fletcher credited the defense playing as a unit for the improved performance.

“I don’t even know how many tackles I’ve got,” he said outside Ryan Field. “But I know I helped the team. I like to put the other 10 guys in position to make plays too. I don’t really think, ‘I’m going to make this play.’ I just think about the whole defense. I’m put in this position to make the whole defense make a play.”

Southern allowed only three plays of 10 yards or more in the second half, two of which came on Northwestern’s final drive of the game. NU standout running back Evan Hull piled up 124 yards, but only 31 came in the second half.

On a defense with seven new starters, the win was just what SIU needed to regain confidence.

“It just took us time to get the connection going,” Fletcher said.

He noted that as an FBS transfer, the way SIU played in Evanston was like the teams he formerly played at Arkansas State.

“The level of play that we played today was more like FBS,” he said.

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