Salukis fight for Homecoming comeback

By Ethan Cox

For Saturday’s matchup, the Southern Illinois Salukis squared off against conference rivals, the Youngstown State Penguins. The Penguins came into town with an MVC record of 1-2 and an overall record of 3-3. A great matchup between the Salukis number one offense in the conference versus the Penguins number one defense.

The game started with the SIU offense looking quite shaky, going 3-and-out on their first two drives. They fumbled on the first punt return and on the second drive but luckily recovered both of them. It was obvious that the strategy of the SIU offense was the use of trick plays, where there were multiple times the wide receivers would run the ball. Although, it did not fool the notorious defense of Youngstown State, who stopped the Salukis for short gains almost each and every time. The Saluki defense wasn’t a force to reckon with either. With the 9th ranked defense in the conference, SIU played just as well as the Penguins did defensively, forcing multiple 3-and-outs. With six seconds left in the first quarter, Penguin backup running back, Jody Webb, fumbled on the Saluki 30 yard line which was recovered by SIU after a 46 yard drive. The quarter ended with the score at 0-0.

The second quarter started with the Salukis trying to capitalize on the fumble recovery late in the first quarter. They drove the ball down the field but were held up, being forced to attempt a 51 yard field goal. Kicker, Austin Johnson lined up for the kick and miss the field goal wide right. Directly after receiving the ball back, Penguin quarterback Hunter Wells whipped the ball down the field to complete a 46 yard pass to wide receiver Andrew Williams. Five plays and 20 yards later, Wells faded the ball up to the 6’4” Williams for a one yard touchdown completion and the first score of the game. With the ball now back, the Salukis looked to redeem themselves after the missed opportunity last drive. On their third play of the drive, star quarterback Mark Iannotti threw up a deep pass to wide receiver Billy Reed for 63 yards and a touchdown. The drive was very quick and only lasted 50 seconds long. On the next drive, Youngstown State continued their offensive dominance. In 12 plays and 81 yards, backup quarterback Ricky Davis finished the drive by rushing and bouncing around into the endzone for a five yard touchdown. Next drive, SIU drove down the field to the Penguin 20 yard line but were just short of a first down, so they were held to line up for a field goal. Instead of attempting another field goal, head coach Dale Lennon called for a fake. Iannotti threw it up to tight end Adam Fuehne, but it was dropped resulting in a turnover on downs. Youngstown State kneeled down till the half ended with the score being 14-7 Penguins.

The second half kicked off with the Penguins receiving the football. After just four plays into the third quarter, Wells threw an interception to safety Kenny James, who returned it for a touchdown of 41 yards. The extra point attempt was blocked, but the Salukis were almost neck and neck at 14-13. After the interception, there was a noticeable momentum shift in the Saluki secondary. The Penguin wide receivers were being absolutely locked up, causing back to back punts from YSU. The Salukis came out offensively with something to prove in the second half. Running back Daquan Isom rushed for almost 30 yards in their first drive. The drive ended with Iannotti bulldozing a defender into the endzone for a two yard touchdown rush, giving the Salukis their first lead of the game. On the following drive, Youngstown State reciprocated what the Salukis did by scoring another touchdown. This time, a touchdown pass from Wells to I’Tavius Harvin on a seven yard slant route. When the SIU got the ball back, they went to their first strategy of trick plays, but the Penguins defense still wouldn’t fall for it. Coach Lennon made another gutsy call, this time fourth down and it succeeded. Unfortunately, it didn’t help much as the Salukis finished the drive with a punt. Directly after retrieving the punt, the Penguin offense struck.  Wells went back to his top target of the day, Williams, for another touchdown on an 85 yard bomb down the field, putting a really bad beating on the Saluki secondary. The third quarter ended with the Penguins again leading; this time 28-20.

The fourth quarter was big for SIU as they needed to make a few defensive holds and put up some points. Right off the bat, Iannotti launched a pass to Reed for a gain of 27 yards. A few plays later, the Salukis lined up  for a 44 yard field goal. For the second time of the night, Johnson was wide right, causing the Salukis to miss out on another three points. Looking to capitalize on the missed field goal, YSU drove down the field to attempt a field goal of their own. They kicked the field goal and it was blocked, but since it was behind the line of scrimmage, the long snapper Shane Kuhn was able to scoop it up and get a Penguin first down. Three plays later, Youngstown State had another chance to kick a field goal and this time it went through the uprights. YSU had an 11 point lead over SIU with the score being 31-20. For the Salukis, the game had looked grim. They were in desperate need of points and were looking for a playmaker to make plays with just under six minutes to go. Just when they needed it most, Iannotti converted a third down screen to Isom who ran it to the endzone for 75 yards. They then successfully converted the two point conversion through a pass to tight end Shaq Findlater. With the score now being 31-28, the Saluki defense was looking to perform, and that is exactly what they did. With 3:30 left in the game, the defense held the Penguins to another three and out, forcing them to punt. This time, the punt was tipped, allowing the Salukis to get the ball on the YSU 47 yard line. Midway into the drive, the Salukis had to face a fourth and two and were able to convert. Back up running back Aaron Stanton came up clutch, catching an 18 yard pass, bringing his team to the 14 yard line. Iannotti was able to rush down to the one yard line, but it wasn’t enough to convince Coach Lennon to go for it. Instead, he had Johnson go onto the field to redeem himself, scoring the tie field goal with not enough time remaining for YSU to try to score. End of the fourth quarter with the score 31-31 going into overtime.

The Salukis won the coin toss, giving them the first chance with the ball. Lined up at the 24 yard line two plays into the drive, Iannotti dropped a dime into the hands of wide receiver Israel Lamprakes, who had been quiet all game long up until that point. Now, with a chance to send the game into double overtime, the Penguins were faced with a fourth down on the Saluki 11 yard line. Wells pitched the ball running back Martin Ruiz who then proceeded to throw the ball into the endzone. It was broken up by the Salukis, which led to them winning the game. Final score: 38-31 Salukis!

Wells finished the game with the highest quarterback rating between the two starters with a rating of 177.8. He completed 20 of 31 passes and had 324 passing yards. Iannotti finished the game with a rating of 174.4, but did not throw an interception unlike his opponent. One receiver on each team stole the spotlight. Williams of YSU had six catches for a total of 150 yards and two touchdowns and Reed of SIU had three catches for 103 yards and one touchdown.

Iannotti said it was great to pull off such an amazing comeback.

“It’s the best feeling in the world,” he said. “Nothing compares to it”.

The Salukis improved to 2-2 in the MVC and 3-4 overall. They will take on the North Dakota State Bison at 2 p.m. on October 31 at home. 

“I’m hungry [for the win],” Lennon said. “We’re all hungry”.