Nov. 25, 2006
By Jeff Honza
CARBONDALE, Ill. - Nick Hill threw a game-winning 45-yard touchdown pass in the final minute of the game and Arkee Whitlock rushed for 207 yards and four touchdowns to lead No. 10 Southern Illinois University (9-3) to a 36-30 come-from-behind victory over No. 12 Tennessee-Martin (9-3) earlier today in the first round of the NCAA Division I Football Championship.
SIU trailed by 20 points early in the third quarter, but rallied behind Whitlock's three second half TDs.
"I can tell you this, I've been down 21, I've been down 28, and as long as the kids don't see you quit as a coach, they don't see you panic," said Saluki head coach Jerry Kill. "I thought the coaches did a great job of keeping their composure.
"We are a young team and we almost fell apart a couple of times, but we kept fighting and never gave up."
Whitlock's 1-yard run gave the Salukis their first lead at 28-27 with 9:42 left in the game.
Taylor Brown's 34-yard field goal regained a 30-28 advantage for the Skyhawks, but the Salukis ended all UTM playoff hopes on their last drive of the game.
SIU took over on downs at its own 20-yard line with 2:39 remaining and marched 80 yards in eight plays behind its first-year starting quarterback.
Hill, who transferred to SIU in 2005 after playing basketball at Western Kentucky, lofted a pass over the head of UTM defender Dante Harrold.
Turner adjusted to make the catch, as the ball was held up in a gusty wind out of the south. He then dashed down the sidelines for the winning score. Braden Jones' two-point conversion followed.
UTM had one chance at the end, but Derrick Belton intercepted a Greg Preston pass on a second-and-six at the Skyhawks' 29-yard line.
UTM had SIU on the ropes in the first half, but failed to deliver the knock-out punch.
The Skyhawks scored two touchdowns in the opening six-and-a-half minutes of the game.
UTM is primarily a running team, but Preston caught SIU off-guard when he threw a big 51-yard completion to Jesse Burton on the Skyhawks' first play from scrimmage.
Two plays later, Don Chapman scored from a yard out to give UTM a 7-0 lead.
Jack Greenwood picked off a Hill pass on SIU's next possession, and returned it for a 51-yard touchdown. Just like that, the Salukis were down, 14-0, with 8:34 left to play in the first quarter.
SIU started to chip away at the lead when Whitlock scored from a yard out, but with the help of a Saluki personal foul, UTM was able to capitalize the next time it had the ball.
The Salukis were whistled for a late hit on a third-and-three. After the 15-yard penalty gave UTM an automatic first down at the Saluki 43-yard line, Preston threw a 28-yard completion to Burton.
Four plays after that, Preston threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Justin Glover to give UTM a 21-7 halftime lead.
UTM went 80 yards in seven plays on the first drive of the second half. Chapman's 13-yard run capped the march, which put the Skyhawks ahead, 27-7, at the 12:04 mark of the third quarter.
However, the Skyhawks blew the lead and saw their first-ever postseason appearance come to an abrupt end when they were outscored 29-3 the rest of the way.
Whitlock's four rushing TDs tied a career-high, as he posted his third 200-yard game this season. He also became SIU's all-time single-season leader in points scored (150 pts.), surpassing Muhammad Abdulqaadir's 128 points in 2002.
Whitlock has rushed for a total of 775 yards and 14 touchdowns in his last four games alone.
"Arkee's the best player in the country. Not the best running back, the best player," said Kill. "He's unbelievable and I've never seen anything like it in my life. It's fun to watch him."
Hill completed 8-of-14 passes for 129 yards and the game-winning touchdown. He also ran for 19 yards on nine carries.
"Nick never loses his composure," said Whitlock. "He makes mistakes, but can recuperate. He bends, but doesn't break."
SIU advanced to the quarterfinals, where it will hit the road to face Montana on Saturday, Dec. 2. Game time is to be announced.
The Salukis (four-straight) and Grizzlies (14-straight) own the nation's top-two longest playoff streaks in I-AA football.
Game Notes: SIU overcame a deficit of 20 or more points to win a game for the first time since it fell behind, 20-0, against Northern Iowa on Oct. 2, 2004...the Salukis rallied to beat the Panthers, 40-36, at McAndrew Stadium that year...the Salukis registered their fifth playoff win in five postseason appearances...both Ohio Valley Conference schools (UT-Martin, Eastern Illinois) lost to Gateway opponents today, dropping the league to a 0-12 mark in postseason play since 1996...SIU trailed an opponent for the first time since losing its lead in the fourth quarter at Youngstown State on Nov. 4...what a week it's been for Whitlock, who was named Gateway Conference Offensive Player-of-the-Week, invited to the Hula Bowl, and rushed for 207 yards and four TDs against a UT-Martin defense that entered the game, allowing under 14 points a game.