USD (4-6, 3-3 MVFC) snapped another three-game losing streak Saturday, defeating Youngstown State (5-5, 1-5 MVFC) 56-21 on Military Appreciation Day inside the DakotaDome.
“Things haven’t gone our way these last three weeks,” head coach Bob Nielson said after the game. “We haven’t played the kind of football that I have felt we were capable of playing. I think it would have been pretty easy for our guys to say, ‘hey it’s just not our year,’ but our staff did a good job of putting a game plan together and kids really responded.”
The Coyotes exploded early, scoring touchdowns on their first four possessions and never allowing the Penguins back into the game. USD totaled over 300 yards on the ground for the second time in as many weeks, with junior running back Kai Henry breaking the 100-yard mark for the third game in a row.
“It starts with the big boys up front, to be honest,” Henry said. “They just manhandle the trenches, and today they manhandled the trenches today. I have to give all the props to them.”
All four of USD’s opening touchdowns came courtesy of senior quarterback Austin Simmons, who earned Missouri Valley Football Conference player of the week for his performance. Simmons found junior tight end Connor Herrmann and freshman receiver Carter Bell for consecutive scoring strikes to give the Coyotes a 14-point edge just over six minutes into the game. Simmons later ran for a 10-yard score and then found junior tight end Brett Sampson for a third touchdown pass in the first half.
Simmons said he felt the team finally found its stride in Saturday’s contest.
“Our season has just been very inconsistent. We’ve just been very inconsistent all year, so consistency is something that is very big for this team and this week we really had a great week of practice and it up today,” Simmons said.
Simmons’ fifth touchdown was USD’s last, finding senior receiver Dakarai Allen on a 28-yard pitch-and-catch. Simmons finished the day with 180 passing yards on 13 completions and four touchdowns along with 72 more yards and another touchdown on the ground.
Henry led the team in rushing, following his 145-yard performance last week with 130 yards rushing and two scores on Saturday. Teammate Canaan Brooks, a sophomore running back, followed suit with a 112-yard effort that included a touchdown of his own. This was Brooks’ first collegiate game breaking the 100-yard barrier.
The Coyote defense matched the performance of the offense, holding the Penguins to 66 rushing yards and sacking Penguin quarterback Joe Craycraft six times. Youngstown State’s rushing attack entered the game ranked 22nd in the FCS, averaging 204 yards per game. They have since dropped to 31st.
“That was the game plan going in, we were going to commit to stopping the run and force them to try and throw the football,” Nielson said. “They got into a situation where they had to throw the football in the second half because of the lead and that’s not what they wanted to do. That’s how you beat good teams is by putting them in situations where they’re not comfortable and we did that today.”
Junior linebacker Jack Cochrane led the charge with seven total tackles, two for loss and a sack. Senior defensive lineman DeValon Whitcomb finished with three tackles and two sacks of his own. Juniors Jake Matthew and Jackson Coker and senior Kameron Cline also recorded sacks.
Whitcomb said he believed the defense would step up Saturday even after losing to previously winless Western Illinois the week prior.
“I believed it was going to come, but I just knew we needed to keep our heads down and stay working,” Witcomb said. “You’ve seen it throughout each game that we’ve played, at any given time the play can go for us or it can go for the other team. So, we really just need to keep working hard.”
Nielson said he was proud of how the team rebounded and stepped up against the Penguins.
“The one thing we talked about is we have to play bigger at bigger times, which has been a little bit of our weakness. Every opportunity we had our guys responded today,” Nielson said.
The Coyotes face arguably their biggest test yet next Saturday as they travel to Fargo to take on the top-ranked and undefeated North Dakota State Bison.
“I’m not going to stop until the very last play of the season,” Simmons said. “I don’t care if we’re winning or losing, it doesn’t matter. I’m going to go out there and keep working hard and that’s what the rest of the guys are doing too. That’s what you can expect to see for the rest of the year.”