Facing a 14-0 deficit and with its starting quarterback out with a shoulder injury, Southern Illinois reeled off 28 unanswered points to beat UT Martin on Saturday and snap a seven-game home losing skid.
The Salukis (2-1) lost quarterback Stone Labanowitz on the second play of their first possession and didn't fully regroup until the second quarter. Once it did, Southern was unstoppable with running backs Javon Williams Jr. (138 yards) and D.J. Davis (101 yards) shredding the UT Martin defense.
UT Martin quarterback John Bachus completed his first eight passes and guided his team on a pair of touchdowns drives to start the game, stunning the Family Weekend crowd of 8,983 -- the biggest crowd at Saluki Stadium since Homecoming in 2016.
"We really couldn't have scripted it any worse the way we started the football game," said SIU head coach Nick Hill. "But the type of guys we have in the locker room, they found a way. I saw a lot of great leadership on the sideline, a lot of guys who weren't going to accept what was going on."
Southern's defense cranked up the pressure on Bachus, rattling the redshirt freshman with four sacks and frequent pressure in his face. He completed just 10 of his final 20 throws and the Skyhawks (1-2) were blanked the rest of the way. After holding UMass scoreless on six-straight possessions last week, Southern's defense stopped UT Martin on its final eight drives.
Meanwhile, the offense came to life midway through the second quarter, thanks to redshirt freshman running back Javon Williams Jr., who was a beast running from the Wildcat formation. He carried 22 times for 138 yards and two TDs, including a both of Southern's second-quarter scores that knotted the game, 14-14, at halftime. His burst through the line of scrimmage for 25-yard TD run with 3:22 to go in the second quarter, as a fatigued Skyhawk defense was unable to slow him down.
"Good things happen when the ball's in 15's hands," Hill said. "When the lights are on, he's not going to shy away, he wants the ball in his hands."
Backfield mate D.J. Davis added 101 yards and moved into third place all-time in career all-purpose yards at Southern Illinois, surpassing Hall of Fame receiver Cornell Craig. It was the eighth 100-yard rushing game for Davis in his last 14 outings.
The Salukis were determined to run the ball tonight, starting the game with no receivers and two extra tight ends. On several plays, 320-pound guard ZeVeyon Furcron lined up at fullback, as did 253-pound defensive end Jordan Berner.
"We have to mix things up and use our personnel the best we can," Hill said. "Sometimes that's three running backs, sometimes that's Javon at quarterback."
Southern scored twice in the third quarter as Davis ran it in from 26 yards out and wide receiver Avante Cox found the end zone on a 10-yard reverse. Midway through the fourth quarter, SIU's defense made its final stop when safety Jeremy Chinn picked off a Bachus pass in the end zone for his 11th career interception.
Karé Lyles came on in relief of Labanowitz and completed 10-of-13 passes for 92 yards, though he got off to a shaky start by throwing an interception on his first pass and fumbling the ball on his second pass attempt. From there on out, he settled down and made accurate throws, including a 34-yard connection to Avante Cox late in the fourth quarter on 3rd-and-6 that ended any UT Martin comeback hopes.
"We've talked about how close that quarterback competition was," Hill noted. "Karé's had some good practices, a good attitude throughout it. He approaches every practice like he's the starter. He does a great job in the film room. I knew he was zeroed (in) on the game plan."
The Salukis play another FBS opponent next week when they travel to Arkansas State.
"Never take winning for granted, but we have to come in here tomorrow with a focus to get better," Hill said. "We haven't played our best game, we're still searching for that."