Scoop Roundup: How a false COVID test, Southwest flight& trick play keyed Southern win

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Southern Illinois was in uncharted territory for the program and given very little chance whatsoever in Saturday's Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs opening-round game at powerhouse Weber State.

SIU coach Nick Hill never flinched.

Nor did his veteran squad, one of the oldest in FCS football comprised of many fourth- and fifth-year seniors who endured a combined 16 losses in the 2017-18 seasons that marked the onset of their collegiate careers.

Hill & Co. held back nothing in this contest; they converted a successful fake field goal for a touchdown late in the third quarter and got the game-winning touchdown pass inside the final minute.

“I just can't say enough about everybody involved, but first and foremost, the players,” Hill, a former SIU standout quarterback who played in both the Arena Football League and NFL. “I told them before the game, they earned the right to be in this game.

“These guys, it really goes against what everybody in the country is kind of doing right now. They've stayed, they've stuck together, they've believed. They went out and got maybe one of the biggest wins in Saluki football history.”

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Back to the fake field goal play, a 3-yard pass from kicker Nico Gualdoni to backup tight end Cole Steward.

The Salukis still were working to dig out of their 14-point deficit which had loomed over throughout most of the game, first 14-0 and then 21-7.

It was 21-17 when Hill and special teams coordinator Jared Petrino elected for the trick play.

Stones aplenty.

An even more remarkable story when it's revealed that Steward had endured a false-positive test for COVID-19, could not fly out with the Salukis and had to scramble to catch a Southwest Airlines flight to Utah to rejoin his teammates and play in the program's long-awaited playoffs appearance.

“Again, love our staff and this is a staff effort,” Hill said. “Coach Jared Petrino, each week we talk about the different fakes, early in the week, what's there. I ask him what he likes. Honestly, right there, he suggested it and I was like, 'Yeah, let's roll with that.' If they notice he's over there, we can shift back and kick the field goal.

“My faith is No. 1 in my life. You pray and the other team wants to win, too. It's just meant to be that Cole caught that pass. He flew out here on Southwest. It's incredible. We wouldn't have ran that play; Cole's the only one we ran it to. So that play wouldn't have happened. Maybe we don't win that game unless he gets out there.”

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On the game-winning TD score, quarterback Stone Labanowitz faced heavy pressure and stepped off his back foot to heave an arcing toss into the right corner of the end zone. Branson Combs made the catch.

"Great job going up and getting it," said one FCS playoffs coach. "And great throw by the quarterback off his back foot."

The Salukis defense then sacked Bronson Barron to preserve the only upset in the opening round of the playoffs.

“It's big for us, big for the community of Carbondale and big for Southern Illinois,” said fifth-year senior linebacker Bryce Notree. “And it's testament to everybody sticking it out all these years.”

PEEKING TOWARDS THE QUARTERS

With eight teams remaining in the quest for the FCS title, which culminates with the championship game May 16, there are two particularly compelling matchups this weekend.

No. 3 national seed James Madison hosts North Dakota as action shifts to Sunday. The Dukes held off VMI's second-half charge in a 31-24 win.

North Dakota bludgeoned Missouri State, 44-10.

JMU is 6-0 on the year and consistently has ranked among the top teams in the country. North Dakota's only loss was a 34-13 defeat by rival North Dakota State in late March.

On that same side of the bracket, No. 2 seed Sam Houston State hosts that same North Dakota State squad, which systematically pulled away from pesky Eastern Washington in a 42-20 first-round win.

The Bison lost to South Dakota State on the last day of the regular season but gained entrance into the playoffs as an at-large selection. They had a Week 2 loss to Southern Illinois, a stunning 38-14 blowout, and then had reeled off four wins in a row prior to stumbling against SDSU.

BRINGING BACK PLENTY

It was watershed seasons for both Davidson College and Virginia Military Institute, both of which claimed their respective conference titles to earn an FCS playoffs berth.

Davidson could not get its ground game untracked in Saturday's loss at perennial power Jacksonville State, but the Wildcats' future outlook is bright. They are scheduled to return 16 starters on offense and defense, with the defense expected to lose just two starters.

For VMI, the expectation of returning players is even greater. The Keydets are tentatively set to return all 11 starters on offense and seven of 11 on the defensive side of the ball.