VERMILLION, S.D. | A lot of the postgame discussion following South Dakota’s 42-0 shutout of Southern Illinois on Saturday centered around whether or not seven wins is enough for the Coyotes to make the playoffs.
USD moved to 7-1 overall and 4-1 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference and put itself in solid position to make the postseason, although the final outcome is far from being decided.
“We’ve got three outstanding football teams left on our schedule and just about everybody in the Missouri Valley Football Conference is looking at the last three games on their schedule and saying the exact same thing,” USD Coach Bob Nielson said. “We have to go on the road for two. Wins are at a premium when you go on the road so we’ve got work to do this week getting ready for a very good UNI team that has been playing very well of late.
“It’s going to be a game that has a lot of meaning to both teams. With a win today our guys have put themselves in a pretty good spot. There aren’t many teams in the country that control their own destiny in a lot of things and we’re one of that handful right now.”
Normally when teams reach seven wins, they are considered a fairly safe bet for the playoffs. The Coyotes, though, still have road games at UNI and North Dakota State the next two weeks followed by what’s shaping up to be a vitally important matchup with South Dakota State at home in the regular season finale.
“Everybody talks about seven wins being such a magic number and, don’t get me wrong, it certainly was a huge game,” Nielson said. “But from a football standpoint our guys realize that seven wins is seven wins. We’ve got goals as a football team that are higher and the game at Northern Iowa is going to play a big role in our being in a position to achieve all those goals.”
Every team in the MVFC that has reached seven wins the last two seasons has made the playoffs, but since 2012 when the Coyotes joined the league, five got to seven and didn’t make it.
South Dakota is tied with Illinois State for second in the conference race, one game behind North Dakota State. The worst South Dakota could finish would be 7-4 and 4-4, but getting an eighth win would almost certainly clinch a playoff berth. That’s why Saturday’s game at the UNI-Dome should draw the team’s complete focus.
“That’s what we have to do and I think this team is completely capable of that,” said safety Andrew Gray, who set a school record with a 97-yard interception return for a touchdown against Southern Illinois. “We did a good job of doing that this week. We focused on them and didn’t worry about any other distractions.”
Defense, Simmons shine
The Coyote defense gave up 402 yards but handed Southern Illinois its first shutout loss in 17 seasons.
It came down to a battle of back-up quarterbacks after USD lost Chris Streveler to a shoulder injury on the first series of the game and Southern Illinois quarterback Sam Straub went down shortly thereafter with a wrist injury.
Austin Simmons went the rest of the way for the Coyotes, throwing two touchdown passes and completing 11 of 18 passes for 91 yards. Streveler’s injury isn’t expected to keep him out of action very long. In fact, he was warming up at halftime and probably could have played but Nielson decided to stick with Simmons.
“Any reps you can get, or any experience really, is helpful in some way,” Simmons said. “It’s not really the way I’d like to be playing, I don’t want Strev to be hurt. But if he can’t go, I’ll obviously do my best to be ready to step in.”
Tanner Hearn, who had also played sparingly this season, replaced Straub and threw for 231 yards, but was intercepted four times and two of those were returned for touchdowns. Southern Illinois came up empty three times inside the red zone in the second half.
“What an ironic situation, two of the best quarterbacks in the conference and both teams lose their guy in the first quarter,” Nielson said. “I’m sure it limited their offensive game plan. It limited ours a little bit, we got pretty stale offensively in the third quarter and made a commitment to run the football in the fourth quarter.
“We didn’t change many calls (on defense when Straub went out). We pressured a little more than we probably would have with the other quarterback because he’s really good at getting the ball out quick.”