VERMILLION, S.D. | All the pieces are in place for a South Dakota football team desperately trying to reach the next level.
The Coyotes have moved into the Football Championship Subdivision top 25 for the first time since the final week of the 2011 season, courtesy of a 2-0 start with two wins on the road.
No. 23 USD has a rare opportunity Saturday, entertaining 10th-ranked North Dakota in its home opener at what promises to be a raucous DakotaDome.
North Dakota, the reigning Big Sky Conference champion, is 1-1 after opening the season with a 37-16 loss at Utah before rebounding with a 34-0 shutout of Missouri State last week.
Besides the setback to FBS program Utah, the only other loss for the Fighting Hawks since a wild 47-44 double overtime victory over South Dakota early last season was to Richmond, 27-24, in the FCS playoffs.
“We have to play well, our focus this week has been on getting better and making an improvement like we did from week one to week two,” South Dakota Coach Bob Nielson said. “North Dakota is going to bring a lot of different challenges than Bowling Green. From a defensive standpoint they’re much different in their approach, a very attacking style, and on top of that the offense is to a certain extent like Bowling Green in that they want to be balanced, have very talented running backs, good experience in the offensive line and a dual threat quarterback that we really haven’t seen anything like yet.”
UND quarterback Keaton Studsrud owns a 29-7 touchdown to interception ratio in two plus seasons as a starter. Running back John Santiago leads all FCS juniors with 2,442 career rushing yards and 3,759 all-purpose yards. Santiago and Brady Oliveira combined for more than 1,800 yards and 17 touchdowns last season.
South Dakota quarterback Chris Streveler has been virtually unstoppable through two games. The senior passed for 244 yards and five touchdowns and ran for a score in one half of a 77-7 rout at Drake. He passed for 306 yards, ran for 119 and scored four touchdowns in a 35-27 win at Bowling Green last Saturday.
Streveler was the FCS National Player of the Week and the Missouri Valley Football Conference Offensive Player of the Week for the second time.
Saturday’s game is the only FCS top 25 matchup on this week’s schedule. The last time these two teams met as ranked foes, North Dakota scored three unanswered touchdowns in the fourth quarter to erase a 20-point deficit and win 38-37 at Grand Forks, North Dakota, in the final game of the 2011 season.
It was much the same last season when the Fighting Hawks rallied from 20 points behind in the final 18 minutes to force overtime and eventually win in double overtime.
“It was a great game that came down to the wire and one that we certainly had opportunities to win but didn’t do as good a job as we needed to at the end of the game,” Nielson said. “They’re a team that’s going to take advantage of miscues and a team that plays the cleanest football and executes and does the little things right is probably the team that’s going to win.
“We’ll be tested on all fronts. To have a team that was in the playoffs a year ago and a team that’s highly ranked come into your place creates a tremendous challenge but also a tremendous opportunity for our football team.”
South Dakota hasn’t started the season 2-0 with two road wins since 1957 and a win over North Dakota would make it 3-0 heading into the MVFC opener at Western Illinois in two weeks.
“That’s what we want to be and obviously a team like North Dakota is going to rival the best teams in our league as you prepare for the league season,” Nielson said. “But hopes to elevate the level of play that you’re going to need to win games in the league is a good schedule to have.”
North Dakota, by the way, is set to join the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020.