Game-ending field goal leads Salukis to victory over Redhawks

CARBONDALE – Nico Gualdoni drilled a 27-yard field goal as time expired to lift Southern Illinois to a dramatic 20-17 win over SEMO last Friday night in the “War For The Wheel.”

In the only game for both teams this fall, the No. 24-ranked Salukis (1-0) rallied for the win behind a 135-yard rushing night by running back Javon Williams Jr. and a clutch 53-yard drive in the final 1:23 of the game.

SIU quarterback Kare Lyles started the game-winning drive with three-straight completions, including a 22-yard catch and run by Avante Cox, that moved the ball from Southern’s 41 to the SEMO 37. 

Two plays later, Romeir Elliott busted loose for 19 yards and the Salukis called a timeout with 21 seconds left and the ball at the 15.

A five-yard carry by Elliott to the SEMO 10 set the stage for Gualdoni’s dramatics. The senior from nearby Johnston City split the uprights and his teammates rushed the field in celebration. 

“It definitely didn’t disappoint,” said SIU head coach Nick Hill. “We knew it was a game we were going to have to earn, and back and forth.”

The Salukis re-claimed the ship’s wheel, the series’ signature trophy, from the No. 25 Redhawks (0-1), who had won the last two meetings between the two schools that are separated by just 45 miles and the Mississippi River.

The game was originally scheduled for Sept. 19, but was canceled by COVID-19. Then it was rescheduled for Oct. 23, later pushed to Oct. 30, and a late uptick in regional virus cases caused Saluki Athletics to limit attendance to families only. 

“We had to go through a lot to get here,” Hill admitted. “I’m proud of our guys’ focus and resiliency. There’s been some ups and downs of just getting to this point.”

The two teams were evenly matched, both in style and statistics. SEMO had a slight edge in rushing yardage, 281-260, but the Salukis were more effective through the air, 152-53.

The lead see-sawed back and forth, with SIU jumping on top, 10-7, on a 40-yard TD gallop down the left sideline by Williams Jr. in the third quarter, but SEMO immediately answered with a 21-yard touchdown pass from Andrew Bunch to Johnny King.

Trailing, 14-10, midway through the fourth quarter, Lyles hit Cox in the left flat and he dodged two defenders to cross the goal line from 18 yards out and give SIU a 17-14 lead. Cox finished with nine catches for 74 yards.

The lead didn’t last long as SEMO countered with a 32-yard field goal with 4:16 to go. Both teams exchanged punts, setting up the winning drive.  

“I had all the confidence in the world in (Gualdoni),” Hill said. “Nic Baker with a great hold. Dan Heilbron with a great snap.”

There were several defensive heroes for Southern, but none bigger than defensive tackle Blake Parzych, who had nine tackles, including 5.0 tackles for loss and a sack. It was the final game of his career, as the fifth-year senior does not plan to return in the spring. 

“Parzych was incredible,” Hill said. “I gave him a game ball in the locker room. He’s an incredible student who has a bright future in the working world. He’s given this program everything he has.”

The Salukis will continue to practice in the fall, take a break, and then resume the season in February when they are scheduled to host South Dakota State on Feb. 20, 2021.

“I can’t say enough about what this game meant for our program, for developing guys,” Hill said. “Getting this learning experience – we’ll go play eight games (in the spring season) in the toughest conference in the country. It was an unbelievable step for us to win this game.”

(This article was posted on the website. Friday night’s game was aired on KFVS television in Cape Girardeau.)

The Gazette-Democrat

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Anna, Illinois 62906
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