The biggest day in Saluki Stadium history remains Aug. 21, 2017. That's when 15,000 souls packed the home of the Southern Illinois football team, some paying $10,000 for a 20-person suite, to watch the first total solar eclipse to touch the continental United States in 40 years. This was eclipse epicenter because of geography.
There was a considerably smaller crowd on hand Saturday, like 13,000 smaller, to watch the Salukis football team try to top the eclipse.
Didn't happen. Southern Illinois lost to No. 1-ranked and seemingly unstoppable North Dakota State 21-7 on a dark and dreary day. A chance for Saluki Stadium to grab the national spotlight again went by the wayside as the Bison did just enough offensively in the second half to escape the upset.
But let us ask this question: What in the name of Jerry Kill has happened to the Southern Illinois program?
A team that lost 65-17 to the Bison in Fargo last year, a team that hasn't been relevant in the Football Championship Subdivision for a decade, a team that hasn't had a winning record since 2013 and was counted among the Missouri Valley Football Conference dregs the last few years is suddenly ... good.
Not just not bad, but good.
Strong, physical, fast, talented. We know Bison linebacker Jabril Cox is a tremendous defensive player, but how about Southern Illinois safety Jeremy Chinn? Stud. We know NDSU quarterback Trey Lance is the hottest redshirt freshman offensive player in the country, but how about Salukis redshirt freshman running back Javon Williams, Jr.? Dude.
The Bison beat the Salukis 21-7 and when history is written, it's a victory for NDSU and a defeat for Southern Illinois. But in a season when NDSU has steamrolled almost everybody, including a couple of top 10 teams, the Salukis played the Bison as tough as anybody, save South Dakota State.
"I've said that really in the last six weeks I think we're a top 10 team," Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill said. "I think if you would ask North Dakota State coaches about the level play and the players who are on this team I think they would say the same thing."
The Salukis held NDSU to its lowest scoring output this season and became just one of two teams since the start of 2017 to rush for more than 200 yards against the Bison. As Hill pointed out, it wasn't trickery. NDSU didn't sleepwalk through the game or commit four turnovers. The Bison played clean. Southern Illinois lined up and played physical, run-based football against the mightiest team in the land.
"We didn't really hype up this game as David vs. Goliath because we don't feel we're David. We feel like we're a really good football team," Hill said.
Let's hope the FCS playoff committee was watching this contest. The Salukis deserve to be in the 24-team field announced Sunday at 11:30 a.m. on ESPNU.
The Salukis finished the regular season 7-5, with a win over (admittedly bad) FBS Massachusetts. Their losses were to playoff-bound Southeast Missouri, FBS Arkansas State, playoff-bound South Dakota State, playoff-bound Illinois State and the No. 1-ranked Bison. They won five in a row over the lower-tier Valley teams before Saturday's loss, the team's first five-game winning streak since 2009. That was the last time the Salukis made the playoffs.
Losing to NDSU by two touchdowns, in a game that was tied at halftime, shouldn't hurt too badly.
"I think it makes a huge statement. I hope other people believe that, too, like the committee," Chinn said. "We won five straight and went punch for punch with the best team in the country. I think that speaks volumes. ... The way we just competed against the No. 1 team in the country, I think we deserve a chance. I think we're as good as anybody."
Williams concurred, expectedly.
"I definitely believe we deserve it," he said. "We came from being not that good of a team over the last couple of years and we just turned the program around. Now we're 7-5 and just played with one of the best teams in the country. We showed that we got what it takes."
Hill and his team will be on edge Sunday morning. Sometimes, the playoff committee makes decisions that leave more than just snubbed teams scratching their heads. But if what transpired at Saluki Stadium is any indication, Southern Illinois could be a handful for a first-round opponent.
The Salukis didn't make people push the solar eclipse down the list of big days at their stadium, but what they did against NDSU should be enough to be rewarded.