Suddenly hot SIU faces rival Illinois State

Southern Illinois quarterback Nic Baker (8) has thrown seven touchdown passes and no interceptions in the last two games. (Photo by

By Dan Verdun

Nic Baker has returned to the form that Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill believed in all along.

Baker, a redshirt junior out of downstate Rochester High School, is fresh off a four-touchdown performance in a 34-17 win over then-No. 19 ranked North Dakota.

A week earlier Baker was named Missouri Valley Football Conference Offensive Player of the Week following his 241-yard, three-touchdown passing outing as SIU defeated Northwestern.

“If you look at the way he spread the ball around, the way he was on third down, the way he was at getting the ball out of his hand (with) no sacks against a team that brings a lot of pressure,” Hill said a week ago. “Nic’s played some of the best football a quarterback’s played around here.” 

Hill, a former record-setting SIU quarterback himself, continued his thoughts during Monday’s media address via Zoom.

“The one thing you don’t have to worry about with Nic is him getting too high or too low,” Hill said.

After losing their first two games, the Salukis have won two straight and have moved up five spots to No. 19 in this week’s Stats Perform FCS media poll.

Hill took a chance on Baker — listed at 5-foot-9 by SIU — when nearly all recruiters shied away from the player who guided Rochester to a 27-1 combined record and two Class 4A state championships his final two prep seasons.

“Nic did not get an offer until the week before the state championship,” Rochester head coach Derek Leonard told Prairie State Pigskin this summer. “I honestly believe it’s because Nick Hill trusted me. I think he’ll be one of the top three quarterbacks in all of FCS.

“If Nic was 6-1 he’d be at any college in the country, but because he’s 5-8 people passed on him. (SIU) hit the jackpot because he’s as special of a player that I have ever coached. It made me sick (during recruiting) because guys I trust I told, ‘you’re missing the boat on this one.’ Nick Hill was the only person who listened to me and truly took a chance.”

This week’s opponent

SIU (2-2, 1-0) heads north to face rival Illinois State (2-1) at Normal’s Hancock Stadium.

After losing its season opener at Wisconsin, head coach Brock Spack’s Redbirds have posted two straight wins. ISU breezed to a 35-7 win over Eastern Illinois Sept. 17 and is entering Saturday’s game off a bye week.

“Coach Spack and these guys do a great job,” Hill said. “Like (North Dakota’s) Bubba (Schweigert), these defensive-minded coaches make life difficult (for opponents).”

Though they lost last year’s leading rusher Cole Mueller to injury against Wisconsin, the Redbird offense is much improved from last fall. Transfer quarterback Zach Annexstad has completed 62 percent of his passes.

Fourteen receivers have caught at least one pass for ISU, including five receptions by Annexstad’s brother, Brock.

The Redbirds are also expected to have Tristan Bailey, who averaged 13.6 yards per catch a season ago, back in the lineup from a nagging injury.

(Kickoff: 6:30 p.m.; TV: ESPN-Plus & Marquee; Radio: Varsity Network App)

Key matchup to watch

SIU passing game vs. ISU secondary: The Salukis like to spread their aerial attack around among receivers, backs and tight ends.

Avante Cox

Avante Cox leads SIU with 21 receptions for 241 yards and three touchdowns. His twin brother D’Ante’ adds 12 catches for 171 yards and a TD.

The Redbirds have six interceptions, two each by Franky West and Jeff Bowens. ISU returned two picks for touchdowns in its win over EIU.

Additionally, ISU has 13 sacks, led by linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh’s five.

“Illinois State will create their own set of issues,” Hill said. “They will attack at times. We have to reload with the focus of doing our job as play-callers to limit opportunities for guys to get home.”

What’s at stake?

Both teams want a victory for the Missouri Valley standings and bragging rights in the rivalry.

SIU leads the all-time series 42-38 with three ties. Illinois State has won six of the last 10 meetings.

A season ago, Southern stormed back from a 17-0 deficit to post a 35-17 win in Carbondale.

Quick hits

Following Saturday’s game, SIU and ISU will not play each other for the next two seasons. The Missouri Valley is shuffling its future schedules with Murray State joining the league next fall . . . With the exception of the cancelled 2020 COVID-year game, the last time the Salukis and Redbirds did not meet was 1969.

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