SIU linebackers Makel Calhoun (8) and Branson Combs take down Illinois State QB Zack Annexstad during the Salukis’ 19-14 win in Normal. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)
By Barry Bottino
NORMAL — With the clock ticking down late Saturday night and Illinois State 13 yards away from taking the lead, Southern Illinois defensive end Richie Hagarty saw similarities on both sides of the ball at Hancock Stadium.
“They were tired. We were tired. Everybody was tired,” the SIU sophomore defensive end said. “The guy who was going to give the most effort was going to win.”
That “guy” turned out to be Hagarty, who sacked ISU quarterback Zack Annexstad – with a little help via pressure from linebacker Louis Wilbert – on a fourth-down-and-8 play for a nine-yard loss to secure the No. 19 Salukis’ 19-14 victory, its first in Normal since 2012.
SIU, which started 0-2, has won three games in a row and is 2-0 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
“I just felt like I had to give it everything I had,” Hagarty said. “It was the last down that we could possibly wrap the game up. It was a rough, sloppy game in the second half. But as long as we came out with the win, that’s all that matters.”
SIU led 19-0 at halftime on the strength of short touchdown runs from quarterback Nic Baker (15-for-19 passing, 143 yards), Javon Williams Jr. and leading rusher Ro Elliott (74 yards).
A no-huddle passing game from Illinois State (2-2, 0-1) closed the gap in the second half, resulting in two touchdowns and 224 second-half yards.
“It’s really nice to be able to come out with a win,” Hagarty said. “It was ugly, but a win is a win.”
SIU head coach Nick Hill praised his defense, which allowed 98 points in the season’s first two games, for its strong performance against the Redbirds.
“To shut them out in the first half, I felt like our defense was playing at a really high level,” he said of the Salukis, who allowed 80 rushing yards on 30 carries. “Our defensive front has played really well all season as far as eliminating chunk runs.
“I felt like we played complementary football,” Hill said.
Senior wide receiver D’Ante Cox had a big game for the Salukis on offense, grabbing a 67-yard reception and running 43 yards on a reverse to set up two first-half touchdowns.
“This is what I know I can do,” he said. “I love the opportunities, and I love everything about this game.”
10:38, 1st quarter: Baker found D’Ante Cox deep over the middle for a 67-yard connection. The Salukis scored one play later for a 13-0 lead when Javon Williams Jr. rushed for a 2-yard score.
1:40, 4th quarter: Hagarty sacked ISU quarterback Zack Annexstad with the Redbirds driving at SIU’s 13-yard line and turned the ball over on downs.
1:15, 4th quarter: After Hagarty’s sack, the SIU offense still needed to run off 95 seconds. Facing second-and-4 at its own 43-yard line, the Salukis snapped the ball directly to Williams, who ran right then flipped the ball ahead to senior wideout Avante Cox, who got first-down yardage. SIU was able to kneel down and run out the clock.
What it means
The Salukis are now 2-0 in the MVFC and sit in a tie atop the league standings with North Dakota State and South Dakota State.
Prairie State Pigskin chooses the top three Salukis players in the game:
Hagarty: The sophomore had five tackles and two tackles for loss, including the game-clinching sack.
D’Ante Cox: A senior wide receiver, Cox had season highs with 43 yards rushing on one play and 102 receiving yards on six catches.
Branson Combs, LB: His 10 tackles led the Salukis, and he had one of four pass breakups for SIU.
The Salukis visit Springfield, Mo., for a 2 p.m. MVFC game Oct. 8 against Missouri State.