For the second time in three weeks, the University of South Dakota Coyote football team went into halftime with a double-digit lead and a share of the Great West Conference title in grasp, but walked away empty handed.
Leading 37-17 at the beginning of the fourth quarter during their Nov. 19 game against the University of North Dakota, the Coyotes allowed 21 unanswered points, ending their hopes of a championship season.
Head coach Ed Meierkort said he takes the blame for the loss at UND.
“Things just didn’t go our way on Saturday and it was my fault,” Meierkort said. “I’m supposed to lead and I let the team down in a clutch situation. This team gave their best effort game in and game in out, and I am proud of them for that.”
With a 2-1 record against GWC teams, a win on Nov. 19 would have earned USD a share of the Great West Conference title along with California Polytechnic State University.
Senior running back Chris Ganious said the 2011 Coyotes had the tools and opportunities necessary to be the best team in the GWC this season.
“We had a great team this year,” Ganious said. “The seniors this year were focused, determined and worked hard both on and off the field. We had it all, but we just had some games slip away from us and we can look back now and say, ‘We could have done this, or this,’ but it’s over and we have to move on.”
USD’s road to championship contention began Sept. 3 when the Coyotes fell to Air Force 20-37. The team rebounded from their loss and upset the defending champions, then Football Championship Subdivision No. 1 ranked Eastern Washington 30-17 Sept. 10 at the DakotaDome.
One week later the Coyotes traveled to Madison, Wis. where the Coyotes went toe-to-toe with their highest ranked opponent in school history, the then Football Bowl Series No. 6 University of Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers came out on top, 59-10.
Three wins later, including a 24-19 victory over No. 22 Southern Utah during Dakota Days, the team had its first opportunity to clinch a share of the GWC Championship in a game against the Cal Poly
Mustangs on Oct. 29. Much like their match-up against UND, the Coyotes let a double-digit lead slip through their fingers, losing to the Mustangs 24-27.
The Coyotes returned to the DakotaDome rested and ready on Nov. 12 where they overcame Missouri University of Science and Technology by a score of 48-14, putting themselves back in title contention, only to fall to UND the following week in Grand Forks, N.D., ending the season with a record of 6-5.
Meierkort said while the
season may have ended on a somber note, he considers their 2011 campaign a successful one.
“To me we ended the season 6-3,” Meierkort said. “We started off the season against two BCS teams, those were both games we did not expect to win. I look at this season as very successful, not too many teams get to play in two conference championship games. Unfortunately, we were not able to win either of them, but this team should be proud of the effort they put forth and the way they performed.”
Ganious said the overall record does not effect how his team sees.
“There were just some plays that didn’t go our way,” Ganious said. “But game in and game out we rolled with the punches and continued to work hard. A conference championship would have been great, but that’s not how I will remember this team, and I’m proud to say I was a part of it.”
Senior quarterback Dante Warren led the Coyote offense with 1,729 yards passing and 14 touchdowns on the season, adding 415 yards on the ground with nine rushing touchdowns.
However, Warren was not the only player to find success moving the ball downfield as junior running back Marcus Sims ran for 678 yards rushing with four touchdowns during 2011.
Warren’s number one target was junior wide receiver Will Powell, who grabbed 42 catches on his way to 763 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
Meierkort said offensive achievement during the 2011 season came down to the Coyotes’ ability to match-up well on the line.
“A lot of why we were able to play well offensively when we did was our ability to control things upfront,” Meierkort said. “When we played well upfront, we played well offensively. When we played poorly upfront, we played poorly
on offense, guaranteed.”
The Coyotes outscored their opponents 301-273 during the 2011 season with the help of the defense who turned the ball over 22 times on 10 interceptions and 12 fumble recoveries while allowing 3,925 total offense yards.
Senior linebacker Adam Broders led the Coyote defense in both total tackles, with 102, and interceptions, with three.
Meierkort said it is never too early to begin preparing for next season.
“We will have about 17 or 18 juniors stepping up to be leaders this next fall,” Meierkort said. “We will have to fill some major holes, but I have no worries that these guys don’t have what it takes, because they do. We will be entering the Missouri Valley Conference next fall, and be playoff eligible, it’s exciting stuff.”