CARBONDALE — Quarterback Stone Labanowitz broke down the mindset of the SIU offense after their record-breaking performance Saturday.
“Everyone wanted a piece of the cake,” he said. “They got it. They damn sure got it.”
The 17th-ranked Salukis chowed down on No. 15 Southeastern Louisiana for a school-record 807 total yards in a 55-48 non-conference win at Saluki Stadium, giving them a chance to earn an at-large bid for the 16-team FCS playoff field that will be announced Sunday morning.
In upping their record to 5-3, SIU scored its fourth win of the year over a Top 25 team. This one came against a squad that was ranked all year and came in with a road win at No. 15 Nicholls State under its belt.
That’s why coach Nick Hill spent part of his post-game interviewing stumping for the playoff committee to include his squad.
“There’s not six better teams for an at-large bid than ours,” he said. “All three of our losses were to ranked teams. We’re a good football team … we did everything right and we played when other people didn’t play. The committee told us (in 2019) we didn’t make it because we didn’t beat enough ranked teams. We beat four this year.”
That includes then-No. 1 North Dakota State, which owned a 39-game winning streak against MVC foes when it absorbed a 38-14 pounding at SIU Feb. 27. While the Salukis endured crushing defeats to South Dakota State and Missouri State last month, they also lost two pretty certain wins when Illinois State and Western Illinois opted out of games earlier this month.
Which is why Hill opened his post-game presser thanking the Lions (4-3) for taking this game on 10 days’ notice and being willing to make a long bus ride north.
“These are two teams that wanted to play, had something to play for and played the game hard,” he said. “I have a ton of respect for them.”
Particularly quarterback Cole Kelley. The Arkansas transfer showed why TV league schools drooled over him when he came out of high school in the spring of 2018, completing 34 of 42 passes for 418 yards and accounting for five touchdowns, three on the ground.
But Kelley couldn’t play defense, and that was SIU’s biggest advantage. It was apparent quickly that the Salukis were going to move the ball any way they pleased. They ran for 423 yards, Justin Strong rolling up 159 and Javon Williams 145.
Labanowitz enjoyed the day of his life, hitting 20 of 24 passes for 328 yards and two touchdowns. Receivers Avante Cox (8 catches, 127 yards) and Landon Lenoir (7-128) feasted on man coverage by outmatched corners who also experienced difficulties tackling.
SIU scored on eight of its 11 possessions, including the first six. But in a game that could have passed for Oklahoma against just about anyone the last five years, it came down to the Salukis’ last three possessions.
Tied at 41 after CJ Turner’s 11-yard touchdown run erased what was a 41-27 third quarter lead, SIU crafted a quick response. Williams play-faked out of the wildcat and lofted a short pass to Jacob Garrett, who could have ran from midfield to De Soto and not been bothered by a defender.
The 56-yard touchdown regained a 48-41 edge for the Salukis, but they still needed one more play from a defense that ceded 541 total yards and 34 first downs. Enter Anthony Knighton and Jordan Berner.
On third-and-goal from the 5 — a play after the same officiating crew who tossed 27 flags, 14 on SIU, someone missed a pass interference on the Salukis in the end zone — Knighton strip-sacked Kelley. Berner recovered and returned it to the 32.
“We made stops when we had to,” Hill said. “The defense helped the team win a football game.”
Seven plays later, Strong zipped 9 yards on a jet sweep for a 55-41 lead with 7:53 left in the game. And after Kelley found Tim Wilson for a 15-yard score with 5:08 remaining to slice SIU’s lead to seven, Strong and Williams played the dual roles of closer.
The Salukis saddled up their two most punishing backs for 11 straight plays that gained 70 yards to the 5 and melted the remaining clock. Williams’ 11-yard run up the middle in the last minute moved the chains for the 36th time and sealed the victory.
“I sat back and watched the offensive line go to work,” Labanowitz said of the last drive. “It was poetry.”
Call it iambic pentameter, smashmouth style.
SIU punter Jack Colquhoun made just one appearance Saturday, but it wasn’t to swing his right leg. Colquhoun took the snap on a 4th down play at the Salukis’ 30 with under two minutes left in the first half and raced 22 yards for a first down that kept the drive alive and led to Labanowitz’s 8-yard touchdown pass to Lenoir with 10 seconds remaining. … The Salukis survived a whopping 175 yards in penalties, permitting a whopping seven first downs thanks to yellow flags. Hill even drew a 15-yarder for protesting a blindside block. … The FCS selection show hits the air at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, but Hill isn’t going to interrupt his Sunday routine. “We’re going to church and someone will tell me if we’re in or out,” he said, “and then we’ll have a team meeting at noon.”