CAPE GIRARDEAU -- In the War For The Wheel, SEMO overcame an early deficit with 30 unanswered points to pull away from Southern Illinois for a 44-26 win on Thursday night.
The No. 17-ranked Redhawks (1-0) rolled up 529 total yards with a balanced attack that featured 281 yards on the ground, plus 248 passing yards by senior All-Conference quarterback Dan Santacaterina. After not crossing midfield during the first quarter, SEMO proceeded to score on seven-straight possessions.
The Salukis (0-1) lost their FCS season opener for the first time under fourth-year head coach Nick Hill. They jumped out to a 14-7 lead behind a potent ground game and by converting seven of their first eight third-down tries.
Southern scored on its first drive when running back Javon Williams Jr. took a direct snap from center and plowed into the end zone from one yard out. The 10-play, 66-yard drive featured only one pass, but it was critical throw by Stone Labanowitz, a 16-yard completion to Nigel Kilby on 3rd-and-10 at SIU's 34.
After SEMO tied the game, 7-7, early in the second quarter, SIU regained the lead, 14-7, when running back D.J. Davisbroke three tackles and sprinted up the middle for a touchdown from 17 yards out. Davis had two rushing TDs on the night and finished the game with 125 yards, topping the 100-yard plateau for the seventh time in his career.
Momentum switched to the Redhawks during the final four minutes of the first half, when Santacaterina completed three passes of 30+ yards as SEMO countered with a pair of touchdowns to take a 20-14 half-time lead.
Had they not come up empty on two promising first-half drives, the Salukis could have a halftime lead. In a first-and-goal situation in the first quarter, Labanowitz had a pass deflected at the line of scrimmage and SEMO's Marcus Lucas picked it off at the 2. In the second quarter, Labanowitz connected on a 28-yard touchdown pass to Nigel Kilby, but it was wiped out by an illegal formation penalty.
"That was tough to swallow and you knew those possessions were going to come back and get you," said SIU head coach Nick Hill.
The play that resulted in the interception was a run-pass option, and both Hill and Labanowitz admitted the proper read should have been to hand the ball to Davis. Hill said he saw nothing wrong with the formation that nullified Kilby's touchdown.
Southern offense struggled in the third quarter, going 3-and-out on three-straight series, while SEMO continued to put points on the board.
"We weren't able to stay with them punch-for-punch," Hill said. "They have a veteran quarterback who didn't make mistakes and put his team in position to win the football game. He made some throws, he made plays with his feet, his arm."
Defensively, SIU allowed six plays of 25 or more yards. The unit did not register a sack and forced only one turnover -- a fourth-quarter interception by Tre Strong.
"That's a disappointing stat that we had zero sacks," Hill acknowledged. "We've got to get more pressure on the quarterback."
Aside from the interception, Labanowitz had a solid outing in his first-career start, completing 16-for-28 passes for 217 yards.
"He didn't do things that beat us in this game, besides the opportunity (by the goal line) where the ball gets tipped," Hill said.
Davis said the team remains confident in Labanowitz's leadership.
"I know he's a baller and we're going to rally behind him," Davis said. "As soon as we got in the locker room, I told the team, we have 11 more games and the (2-9) outcome we had last year is not going to happen this year."