BROOKINGS, S.D. -- No. 3-ranked South Dakota State rallied from a halftime deficit to beat Southern Illinois, 28-10, on a blustery opening day for Missouri Valley Football Conference play on Saturday.
The Salukis (2-3, 0-1) scored on a 19-yard touchdown pass from Karé Lyles to tight end Nigel Kilby to take a 10-9 lead with 12 seconds remaining before halftime to stun the crowd of 13,776 on Hobo Day at Dana J. Dykhouse stadium.
They maintained that lead until midway through the third quarter when Pierre Strong busted free for a 64-yard touchdown run to put the Jackrabbits (4-1, 1-0) back in front, 15-10.
"I thought we played well on first and second downs, but we also had some lapses when (Strong) cut back and made some big runs," said SIU safety Joe Patterson, who led the team with eight tackles as a replacement for injured safety Jeremy Chinn. "I know that's not the best game we can put together."
With winds gusting to 40 miles per hour, Southern couldn't get its offense untracked in the second half, especially in the third quarter, in which all four drives were 3-and-out. Twice in the fourth quarter, the Salukis moved the ball into SDSU territory but both times ended up turning it over on downs. The Salukis were 1-of-14 on 3rd down conversions, limited to 67 second-half yards and a season-low 215 total yards.
"That falls on me -- I'm the one calling the plays," said SIU head coach Nick Hill. "We take a lot of pride in being a good offensive football team, doing whatever it takes, being balanced. I thought our defense played good enough to win. We have to score more points."
There were a few bright spots on offense. In his first extended action as a replacement for injured star running back D.J. Davis, true freshman Romeir Elliott carried 11 times for 71 yards and also caught two passes.
"Romeir is going to be a fabulous player," Hill said. "He can break tackles, he's small, he's tough. He's the lowest-maintenance player I've ever had. He doesn't say anything, practices hard, does everything you want him to do."
Running back Javon Williams Jr. added 41 yards on the ground for SIU, most of it coming from the Wildcat formation, and wide receiver Avante Cox caught five passes for 54 yards.
Other than a 31-yard completion to Cox, SIU's offense didn't generate any plays longer than 15 yards, though.
"You want so bad to put them in good positions and we couldn't get that explosive play," Hill said. "We've been a pretty explosive offense, but give them credit. We're on the road playing the No. 3 team in the country, a defensive football unit that's top-5 in every statistical category in the country."
With the swirling winds, neither team had much success through the air. SIU quarterback Kare Lyles was 13-for-27 for 108 yards, one touchdown and one interception. J'Bore Gibbs passed for 96 yards for the Jackrabbits but did throw a pair of short, fourth-quarter TD passes that put the game out of reach for Southern.
The Saluki defense recorded a season-high 12 tackles for loss and four sacks. Linebacker Makel Calhoun accounted for five tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. Cody Crider and Jordan Berner had sacks for the SIU, but Strong was the difference-maker for SDSU with 229 rushing yards.
"Those few mistakes -- we have to eliminate them," Crider said. "We didn't get the job done, so we have to come back better next week."
The Salukis have played four of their first five games on the road and come home next week to play Illinois State.
"We've done things the hard way," Hill said. "Nobody cares about that and neither do we. We have a group in there that's embraced that."
"We can't hang our heads on this loss," added wide receiver Landon Lenoir. "The most important thing is we have to stay together as a team, go to the film tomorrow and correct some things."
Southern Illinois hosts Illinois State at 6 p.m. Saturday.