After starting Missouri Valley conference play with a 20-30 loss to Youngstown State, the Coyotes have rallied back, winning three straight games with their latest victory coming Saturday in the DakotaDome in the form of a 27-24 victory over Illinois State. The win led to USD appearing on the coaches poll in the 25th spot, which marks the first time they’ve been nationally ranked since 2011.
“It’s a good win. Illinois State is a good football team. A program that’s established a nice tradition and a program we hadn’t beat here at USD,” said Coyotes head coach Bob Nielson. “Really pleased with the way our guys battled, we played gutsy football and found a way to win.”
For senior running back Trevor Bouma, the ranking is appreciated, but he knows the Coyotes’ work is far from over.
“It feels good to be recognized for some of the success we’ve had this season thus far, but at the end of the day, those rankings don’t mean anything until after the season,” Bouma said.
In the past weeks, the Coyotes have taken down nationally ranked University of Northern Iowa on Dakota Days and survived in double overtime against Indiana State. Last season, Illinois State crushed USD 46-0. The then-ranked number six Redbirds ended their season on a high note and dashed USD’s hopes of a playoff berth.
This season, the two teams entered this game on very different notes. The Coyotes seemed to be finding their groove in conference play, while the Redbirds were struggling after an impressive start that saw them take down Northwestern.
Due to a concussion, junior quarterback Chris Streveler was out for the game. This meant senior Ryan Saeger would start for the Coyotes. Saeger’s first drive led to a 29-yard field goal by senior Miles Bergner to put USD on the board first.
Illinois State would respond with 66-yard drive, capped off with a 17-yard touchdown run. The Coyotes came back with a long drive of their own, going 76 yards before sophomore running back Michael Fredrick punched it in from four yards out.
The Coyotes would keep it rolling with back-to-back scoring drives. One ended with a 15-yard touchdown pass from redshirt freshman Austin Simmons, who after switching off with Saeger for two drives would take over, to junior wide receiver Riley Donovan. The next was another pass from Simmons, this one a 26-yard throw to sophomore Tacari Carpenter. This put USD up 24-7.
The Redbirds would close out the first half with two scores and great clock management. The first was a 44-yard field goal. The second was a quick, 50-second drive near the end of the half that went 43 yards and ended with a two-yard touchdown rush. Going into the half, the Coyotes held a 24-17 lead.
The second half saw both offenses grind to a halt. The Coyotes’ only score of the half came in the third quarter off of a 39-yard field goal from Bergner.
Illinois State would threaten late after a 42-yard touchdown pass made it 27-24 with nearly eight minutes to play. Neither team would be able to make something happen on offense, however, and the Redbirds threw away a shot at a late drive when they were called for roughing the kicker with nine seconds remaining. This gave the Coyotes a new set of downs and effectively ended the game, giving the Coyotes a 27-24 win.
“It feels good to get another win under our belt,” Bouma said. “With each win it just makes the next week that much more important, so you know it’s exciting to have another big opportunity coming up for us this week.”
Starting quarterback Ryan Saeger would finish the game with 42 yards on 4-7 passing. Simmons finished with 205 yards for two touchdowns and one interception on 13-30 passing. He also picked up 36 yards on the ground. Bouma spearheaded the Coyote ground attack. He finished with 55 yards. Donovan was the leading receiver for USD, he had one touchdown and 64 yards on two receptions.
Senior linebacker Jet Moreland led USD on defense with 11 total tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss, as well as a fumble recovery. Senior defensive back Jacob Warner had three tackles and an interception with a 28-yard return.
The game showcased the depth the Coyotes have at the quarterback position. Following the game, both Simmons and Bergner were named Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Week honors.
Both Saeger and Simmons stepped up after Streveler’s injury and for Nielson, it wasn’t just their strong play, but also their leadership that stood out.
“I’ve said all along it’s a position we’ve got a great deal of depth in and a great deal of confidence in all of those guys. They play that way,” Nielson said. “They played with great confidence on Saturday and it was good to see and I’m happy for them as well as not just the level of play they had, but also for the leadership they showed for the football team.”
The Coyotes now switch gears as they prepare to take on Western Illinois. The Leathernecks are 5-2 this season and 2-2 in conference play. The two losses have come at the hands of South Dakota State and North Dakota State. Western Illinois is currently ranked 15th in the country.
“We looked at them a little bit so far and one thing that pops out is that they play extremely hard,” Bouma said. “We’re going to have to play extremely hard and execute just as well, if not better than we have in the past weeks, so it’s going to be another dog fight.”
Nielson sees a bit of the Coyotes in Western Illinois.
“Everybody in the league is a quality football team. The thing Western has done, is they’ve been a bit like us,” Nielson said. “They’ve won some very close games, won with really good play at the end of games and they’re a team that’s going to play hard and a team that’s going to be well-coached and ready to execute.”
One reason he may see some of USD is because Western Illinois is Nielson’s former team. Last season, he led the Leathernecks to their first playoff appearance since 2010.
“It’s a little bit different. There are always players on the other team that you know from recruiting, but obviously this is a group that for the most part I had an opportunity to coach,” Nielson said. “They’re a great group of young men and they’re a team that’s demonstrated that they’re going to continue to move forward, which I knew they would coming off of last year’s playoff team.”
After missing the past game, Streveler practiced Monday and looks ready to get back on the field. The team expects the transfer to be under center on Saturday.
“He’s cleared and he looked good today in practice,” Nielson said. “Obviously we’ll continue to monitor that during the week but we certainly anticipate he’ll be ready to go.”
With the win, the Coyotes improved to 4-3 on the season and 3-1 in conference play. The three wins ties their win mark from last season, when they went 3-5 in conference play. Coyotes will remain at home for this Saturday’s game against Western Illinois. Kickoff time is set for 2 p.m. in the DakotaDome.
For seniors like Bouma, there is a drive to finish the season strong as the Coyotes prepare to enter the final stretch.
“Knowing that these are the last weeks of your playing career just makes you want to practice that much harder and motivate your teammates just as hard,” Bouma said.