VERMILLION, S.D. | They breezed through the preliminary portion of their season with flying colors, getting off to their first 3-0 start at the Division I level and earning their first FCS top 10 rating.
Now, it’s time for the South Dakota Coyotes to embark on the rugged task of competing in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
USD, ranked 10th in the latest Football Championship Subdivision polls, will open league play Saturday with their third road game in four weeks, tangling with No. 16 Western Illinois.
It’s a homecoming, of sorts, for South Dakota Coach Bob Nielson, who spent three seasons in Macomb, Illinois. In his final season at Western Illinois, Nielson guided the Leathernecks to the second round of the playoffs and was named MVFC Coach of the Year.
“It will be different,” Nielson said. “Obviously a lot of the young men on that football team were men I had the opportunity to coach and I’m glad they’re having success, but it’s a football game now and we’re trying to work as hard as we can to get our team ready to go down there and execute.”
Seven MVFC teams are ranked in the top 25 but this is the only game on the FCS slate that features two 3-0 teams. A win Saturday would be the Coyotes’ first in six tries against Western Illinois and would also give USD its first 1-0 start in Valley play.
“Honestly I’m not so sure there aren’t a couple other teams (in the Valley) that shouldn’t be ranked too,” Nielson said.
South Dakota is coming off a bye week after dismantling then No. 10 North Dakota 45-7 for its 15th consecutive home-opening win on Sept. 16.
“If you’re going to have a bye week my preference is to have it early because it allows you to continue to work on and get better at some things,” Nielson said. “We spent last week trying to do that with some of our younger guys getting more repetition and go get a jump start on our weekly preparation.”
Western Illinois has also posted three impressive road wins to start its season, including a 52-10 rout of Coastal Carolina – an FBS program – last weekend.
All-league running back Steve McShane has been slowed by an ankle injury but sophomore Max Morris has stepped in to rush for 316 yards in three games. Quarterback Sean McGuire has completed 72 percent of his passes for five touchdowns after throwing for nearly 3,000 yards and 20 TDs last season.
Both teams rank in the top 10 nationally in points scored and in the top 11 for points allowed. Both rank in the top 20 for defending the run and the top five in turnover margin.
“They’re a very experienced football team,” Nielson said. “Guys that have played a lot of football in the league and certainly are playing real well right now on both sides of the football over the non-conference schedule.
“When you play on the road in the league it’s tough and this will be their first home game. Having been there, it’s a place that will have a good crowd and a team that does a lot of things really well.”
The off week has given some of the injured Coyote players more time to heal. Junior linebacker Alex Gray will return to action after missing the last two weeks. Wide receiver Brandt Van Roekel, who had a big game against Western Illinois, and defensive tackle Jake Leohr each practiced this week and may be getting closer to returning.
Van Roekel, who had a career-high 137 receiving yards against the Leathernecks last season, was injured early in the season opener at Drake. Leohr has yet to see action.
South Dakota’s magnificent senior quarterback Chris Streveler has averaged 280 passing yards and 76 on the ground, both team highs. He has accounted for 13 touchdowns and has yet to commit a turnover in 88 pass attempts and 50 rushes.
Western Illinois handed the Coyotes one of a number of heartbreaking losses last season, rallying from a 31-14 halftime deficit to win 35-34 on a touchdown with 32 seconds left at the DakotaDome.
South Dakota is looking for its first win in Macomb since 1977 and seeking its first 4-0 start since the 2006 season.
“The non-conference games gave our team some confidence but at the same time our guys recognize that the team we’re playing this week is the best we’ve faced this year,” Nielson said. “The challenge is going to be can we continue to elevate our game against outstanding competition? That’s what the Valley schedule is going to be like, it’s going to be a battles week after week after week.”