In the heat of the DakotaDome, the Coyotes finally snapped a cold streak.
After four consecutive losses, USD defeated Western Illinois 17-12 at home Saturday afternoon on Senior day, the last football game the DakotaDome will see until next fall.
“In a lot of ways, this was probably the most complete football game of the year, “ head coach Bob Nielson said after the game. “I’m really happy for our senior group, to have them finish the home part of their career in a very positive way.”
The Coyotes move to 4-6 on the season and slimmed the Leathernecks’ (5-5, 4-3) playoff hopes with one game remaining. Senior safety Andrew Gray said that, given the circumstances, it would’ve been easy to fold.
“There’s just two games left, and a lot of people would say that they don’t really mean anything, but to us, they mean everything,” he said.
Senior tackle Nick Jensen, said at this point, the team is just playing for each other.
“I think it heightened everyone’s focus and everyone’s clocked in more. These two games, you’re not necessarily playing for the playoffs, but you’re playing for the guy next to you.”
After giving up 51 points at Indiana State the previous week, the Coyotes didn’t allow an offensive touchdown. The Coyote defense held WIU to 272 total yards, and the Leathernecks tallied more rushing attempts (22) than rushing yards (21).
“We stopped them from what they wanted to do,” senior linebacker Alex Gray said. “We came out really stingy, we got a lot of TFL’s (tackles for loss) and got them off-schedule early, and we put them in situations they didn’t want to be in.”
Senior safety Andrew Gray said the defense “took a step back” during the week to reflect on what needed to be done.
“We really wanted to focus on doing our jobs. That’s something we overlooked in the beginning of the year,” he said.
USD’s and WIU’s quarterbacks lead the Missouri Valley Football Conference in passing yards, USD quarterback Austin Simmons with 282.9 yards per game and WIU quarterback Sean McGuire with 269.9 yards per game, but the match was not driven by offense.
Both teams left the first half with just one score each. WIU’s came first when junior kicker Nathan Erickson hit a 52-yard field goal four minutes into the game. Five minutes later, sophomore receiver Caleb Vander Esch took a short pass from Simmons two yards into the end zone, capping off a 13-play drive that put the Coyotes up 7-3.
The Coyotes twice threatened the end zone in the second quarter but mustered more turnovers than points.
Two minutes into the second quarter, Simmons threw a 45-yard jump ball to Levi Falck in the back corner of the end zone. Falck got his hand on the ball first, but his defender, senior Xavier Rowe, stole possession mid-flight, landing in the end zone with Simmons’ only interception of the day.
Then, with less than a minute left in the first half, Simmons took a draw 14 yards up the middle and was mauled at the one-yard line by WIU’s defensive backs, who popped the ball out and recovered it in the end zone.
In the third quarter, Sophomore kicker Mason Lorber put the Coyotes up by seven with a 32-yard field goal. On the next possession, senior Michael Frederick, who moved to cornerback at the beginning of the year, interrupted WIU’s 66-yard drive by intercepting a Sean McGuire pass at USD’s five-yard line, the first pick of his career.
WIU kicker Sam Crosa hit a 44-yard field goal with 12:33 left in the game to put the Leathernecks within four points at 10-6.
The next drive, sophomore Kai Henry scored his third touchdown in the last two games, taking a pitch four yards into the end zone in the fourth quarter. Henry finished with 70 rushing yards on 17 carries. Henry, who’s three biggest games have been in the last four weeks, credits the offensive line for the success.
“It’s our O-line blocking their tail off,” Henry said. “We can’t do anything without our O-line, If they have a bad game, we’re gonna have a bad game.”
Five minutes left in the game, WIU blocked a punt from sophomore Brady Schutt. The ball ricocheted into USD’s end zone and was recovered by the Leathernecks for a touchdown. The two-point conversion was intercepted by sophomore Elijah Reed and USD maintained a 17-12 lead for the rest of the game.
Simmons finished the game with 220 passing yards, completing 25 of 36 attempts. He added 66 more yards on the ground.
Sophomore receiver Cody Kase caught seven passes for 71 yards in his first game since Sept. 29. Junior Dakarai Allen’s 28 receiving yards put him four yards over the 1,000-yard mark. He becomes the 12th Coyote to do so.
Next week, USD travels to Brookings for their final game against No. 6 South Dakota State (6-2, 4-2).
“We have a chance to do something that’s never been done,” Alex Gray said. “Last year, we made the playoffs—that’s never been done before—and this year we could knock of State, which has never been done before. We’re gonna attack it with the same mentality we had this week: Never give up and keep fighting for your brothers.”