Nic Baker hit Jacob Garrett with a touchdown pass for the second time in the game to break a tie with 12:28 left in the fourth quarter, and Southern Illinois went on to top Northwestern 31-24 on Saturday.
Garrett caught Baker’s toss to cap a 19-play, 74-yard drive to put the Salukis ahead by a touchdown and SIU (1-2) beat a Big Ten opponent for only the second time. A Missouri Valley Conference member, Southern Illinois' other win over a Big Ten foe was against Indiana in 2006 when coach Nick Hill was their quarterback.
“I'm just excited to see it from a different lens as a coach,” said Hill, who's from Du Quoin, Illinois about 20 miles north of Southern Illinois' campus in Carbondale. “I just kind of stood back and was able to watch them kind of enjoy it.”
SIU made it 31-17 when Baker pushed up the middle for a 1-yard score with 5:09 left after Northwestern quarterback Ryan Hilinski fumbled at the Wildcats 10-yard line.
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The Salukis needed the extra score. Hilinski capped a late 16-play, 75-yard drive with a fourth-and-goal touchdown pass to Malik Washington with 1:19 left.
Baker finished with three touchdowns and 241 yards on 23-of-34 passing. Garrett had 47 receiving yards to go with his two scores.
“We saw some stuff we could take advantage of," Baker said. “We love our wideouts. They can do it all and we trust them and they trust me. To come out here and get the train rolling was huge, especially against a team like Northwestern.”
Tyce Daniel also scored off a Baker pass as the Salukis' air game lifted them to the win. SIU finished with 96 total rushing yards.
But the big difference in this one: Southern Illinois played a tighter, tidier game. The Salukis committed one turnover; Northwestern made four and they were costly.
“We settled down and played outstanding defense,” Hill said. "We took care of the ball and we got turnovers and we competed at a super-high level. We had a daunting task today, to come up staring 0-and-3 in the face if we don't beat a Big Ten school. Man, they battled. It was fun to watch the competitiveness.”
Baker and Garrett stole the show from Hilinksi, who entered averaging 374.5 yards in two previous games, Hilinski threw for more than 300 yards in each of them, but settled for 214 in this one on 27-of-43 passing.
Northwestern (1-2) had 528 total yards in its opener and 511 in its second game. SIU held the Wildcats to 380.
“The defense was just making it tough on them and made it easy on us when they would get turnovers and stuff like that," Baker said.
“We just seemed to have too much inconsistency offensively with our ball security," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Our inability to hit explosives like we had been through the first couple of weeks.
Northwestern's Evan Hull rushed more than 100 yards again, gaining 124 on 25 carries and added eight catches for 33 yards. He entered leading the nation with an average of 235 all-purpose yards per game.
Southern Illinois: Led by Baker and Garrett and some timely defensive plays, Salukis were plucky in their ninth game ever against a Big Ten opponent.
Northwestern: Hilinski and Hull are the headliners, but weren’t as dominant in this one. Hilinksi’s pass accuracy was questionable again as Wildcats continued to wheel-and-deal against a non-conference opponent. But Northwestern needs to tighten up its play on both sides of the ball, especially as Big Ten play arrives.
But Northwestern needs to be more focused and assertive, Fitzgerald said.
“He obviously were hunted today,” he said. We allowed then to come in here and be the hunter. You know credit to them."
Southern Illinois: The Salukis host North Dakota next Saturday in their Missouri Valley Conference opener.
Northwestern: The Wildcats host Miami-Ohio next Saturday in their final non-conference game.
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