VERMILLION, S.D. | There were some anxious moments at the end of a 7-4 regular season, especially since the South Dakota Coyotes lost four of their last five games after a 6-0 start.
But the Football Championship Subdivision committee deemed them worthy enough for a playoff berth and the Coyotes went on to win a game on the road before having a furious rally fall short in a second-round loss at Sam Houston State.
The fact that South Dakota turned things around from a 4-7 finish in 2016 to 8-5 this season is remarkable enough. Not many pundits figured the Coyotes would rise from a team a picked to finish near the bottom of the Missouri Valley Football Conference to a No. 4 national ranking.
Sure, the rough stretch in the second half knocked off a little of the luster, but USD overcame that adversity and even more to post its best record ever as an FCS program.
“This was certainly a team that loved playing football,” said head coach Bob Nielson, who orchestrated the turnaround in just his second season at the Coyote helm. “They worked hard and got better as the year went on. Even though our record showed some losses at the end I really liked the way that our team battled and I think that was demonstrated even in the last game.”
Senior leadership, Nielson said, was a key factor in the rapid ascension.
“Our guys had a great offseason and made a commitment to get better,” Nielson said. “I think the leadership on our football team with the senior class and guys who have been a part of the program and wanted to take that next step forward.
“Then we added in guys like Chris (Streveler) who took on leadership roles, that senior group did a great job of pushing our guys not to settle for close but to get over the top. We reached some of our goals but not all of them. But what I really like about where we’re at right now is we have a group of guys that have experienced what playing in the playoffs is like and now want to make that an every year occurrence.”
The Coyotes picked up a road win at FBS foe Bowling Green the second week of the season, one that more than likely was the difference maker when it came time for playoff selections.
They won their first three conference games and, after a 37-21 road setback at Western Illinois snapped a six-game streak, bounced back with a decisive home victory over Southern Illinois.
A near miss at Northern Iowa (34-29), followed by losses at North Dakota State and at home to in-state rival South Dakota State closed the regular campaign. The Coyotes, though, beat Nicholls 38-31 in front of a hostile road crowd in Louisiana in the opening round of the playoffs before a comeback from a 41-14 halftime deficit at Sam Houston State fell short, 54-42.
There was also the added distraction of three players being suspended from the team amid sexual assault allegations at mid-season.
“It was a year that presented a lot of challenges,” Nielson said. “We lost some players early due to injuries and had to deal with guys having to step up all year long. I think it was a year where we showed a lot of character and the youth that played have established a new level of expectations for our program.
“Any time you can get your team to get a taste of the playoff experience and have them realize what it takes to get there, it’s a really important first step. We’ve done that now so our guys next year are going to have even higher expectations and set higher goals. That’s what we want for our program, to keep getting better and keep improving.”
The Chris Streveler era has ended at USD and what a two-year run it was. The ultra-talented senior quarterback was named the MVFC Offensive Player of the Year and a first-team Associated Press FCS All-American. He is one of three finalists for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top player in FCS.
This season, Streveler broke conference and school records for total yards (4,854) and passing yards (4,134). He accounted for 43 touchdowns (32 passing, 11 rushing), which ranked second nationally in points responsible for.
“Chris is just a tremendous young man, a great football player but in a lot of ways he was even a better leader for our team,” Nielson said. “He led by example, through his competitiveness, and is very deserving of all the accolades and honors that he has received. Hopefully we’ll see a guy who ends up getting one more honor in January.”
Senior offensive guard Stetson Dagel, a Cherokee, Iowa, product, was a second team AP All-American while sophomore defensive end Darin Greenfield from Sheldon, Iowa, was a third-team pick.
Dagel was the top offensive lineman for a unit that ranked second nationally in total offense and fifth in scoring. He started in 26 and played in 38 games during his USD career.
Greenfield led the MVFC in tackles for loss with 19.5 and had the third-most sacks with 9.0.
After having no preseason All-MVFC picks, Streveler, Dagel, Greenfield, junior safety Andrew Gray and senior long snapper Brandon Godsey were each named to the all-league first team.
Nielson, who recently had to rebuke a random report on Twitter that he had been offered the Kent State head coaching job, is on the road recruiting with his staff. He offered a quick peak at the future with Austin Simmons, a talented junior-to-be, taking over the reins at quarterback.
“He’s a very talented young man who has gotten a chance to play,” Nielson said. “He’s had an opportunity to play in a few games over his last two years and they’re all games we’ve won in the Valley. He’s a guy we have a lot of confidence in and look forward to working with as he takes the reins in the spring.”