Southern Illinois is 4-0 and off to its best start since 2007 after beating Missouri State on Saturday, 33-20, in front 10,359 fans at Saluki Stadium on Family Weekend.
The Salukis jumped out to a 14-0 lead and never trailed in the contest with the Bears (1-3, 0-1). On the third play from scrimmage, running back Romeir Elliott galloped 64 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown, and he added a five-yard TD run midway through the first quarter. Elliott totaled 102 yards on nine carries, but left the game before halftime with a turf toe injury.
The Salukis were already without starting wide receiver D'Ante' Cox, who missed the game with a knee injury, so their depth at the skill positions was tested. They passed the test, thanks to clutch performances by wide receivers Vinson Davis III (9 catches, 84 yards) and Zach Gibson (3 catches, 71 yards) and tight end Aidan Quinn (5 catches, 50 yards).
Gibson, in particular, delivered a key, second-half reception. After Missouri State rallied to cut the deficit to 23-20, Southern faced a 4th-and-9 at the MSU 36. That's when Gibson, who started in place of Cox, caught a pass from Nic Baker just inside the right boundary that went for 17 yards and a critical first down.
"I thought Zach Gibson had some big-time catches," SIU head coach Nick Hill said. "He's stayed the course, he's practiced hard, and when his time was called today, he came up big."
The Gibson catch set up a 19-yard touchdown play-action pass from Baker to Quinn on the next play. It was Quinn's first-career TD and extended SIU's lead to 30-20.
Southern seized control of the game on Missouri State's next possession, when linebacker Colin Bohanak ripped the ball away from quarterback Jordan Pachot for a strip-sack and turnover. The Bohanek takeaway led to a nine-play, 46-yard drive and a 32-yard field goal by Thomas Burks that put the game out of reach.
"Us answering with the touchdown to get it back to a 10-point lead was really big, and then our defense closed it out again," Hill said. "That's another game that they got us the ball back and allowed us to go out there in victory formation and take a knee."
Saluki quarterback Nic Baker moved closer to setting the school's all-time passing yardage record. He was 26-of-35 passing for 285 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. Baker needs 122 yards to break Joel Sambursky's record.
One of the top run defenses in the country played true to form, as Southern held Missouri State to just 31 yards rushing. Branson Combs led the defense with 11 tackles. SIU sacked MSU quarterbacks six times on the night.
"We really take pride in stopping the run," Combs said. "We get a scouting report, and the first page of that thing is -- stop the run. That's something we're big on in the linebacker room. If you can stop the run, you can get to longer down-and-distances, and that's where we create the sacks and guys can come off the line."
Hill was SIU's starting quarterback the last time the program started a season 4-0. That team went 12-2 and advanced to the Final Four of the playoffs. Now as SIU's head coach, Hill predicted the season will take many twists and turns and the team can't look past any opponent.
"There's different storms coming on the horizon," he said. "Really, my one focus is, we're going on the road to Youngstown (next week), where we didn't close a game out last year. We had a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter and they came back and beat us."