VERMILLION, S.D. | Two-game winning streaks have a way of lifting a team’s spirits, especially a team that won only once during the entire 2012 campaign.
So the mood around the University of South Dakota football camp is in direct contrast to the dank and dreary weather we’ve experienced of late.
The Coyotes are coming off back-to-back 17-14 victories in the DakotaDome, riding the wave of a defense ranked in the top 10 nationally in three categories.
That defense, led by All-America candidate Tyler Starr and an experienced line and secondary, has helped the team overcome inconsistent play by a young offensive squad.
Wins over Missouri State and Indiana State have evened South Dakota’s overall record at 3-3 heading into a difficult road test Saturday at Northern Iowa.
“The storyline is that our defense continues to play just super,” USD Coach Joe Glenn said. “So far, I don’t think anybody has gotten behind us and if we continue to do that they’re pretty hard to drive the field on.”
USD ranks first in the Football Championship Subdivision in pass defense (105.0 yards per game), second in pass efficiency defense (89.33) and sixth in total defense, allowing 282.7 yards per game. It is also 11th in scoring defense at just 18.7 points per contest.
“They want to play, they’d stay out there all day if they could,” Glenn said. “I really like the way they’re playing a lot of guys, getting fresh people in there. They just like playing, getting after people.”
Starr, a 6-5, 230-pound linebacker from Central Lyon/George-Little Rock, has been virtually unblock able with seven sacks and 10 tackles for loss included among his 34 total tackles. The preseason All-American is two sacks shy of the school sack record.
“From a defensive standpoint we kind of try to control it for the opposing teams,” Starr said. “We want to be able to stop their momentum, get our offense on the field and trade momentum. I think this team is filled with heart and a desire to win and we’ll do whatever it takes. You’ve seen it before, once a team gets on a roll, it’s easy to catch that vibe and keep rolling.”
Starr had to sit out the first half of last week’s game after being ejected in the second half against Missouri State for a helmet-to-helmet hit. He played 26 snaps and in that time recorded seven tackles, forced a fumble and recorded his 25th career sack.
Sophomore linebacker Keyen Lage is also a force to be reckoned with on the other side. The Sioux Falls Washington product is second on the team with 40 tackles, including six for loss.
“Keyen and 11 (Starr) give you both edges, you don’t know who’s coming and who’s not coming and maybe, if they’re both coming, watch out,” Glenn said. “And they’re having run, you can see it. I think we’re good enough on defense to stay in some games that we couldn’t stay in last year.”
The defensive line being a year older has also paid dividends.
“We have three starters coming back from last year, so that really helps,” said sophomore defensive end Drew Iddings. “I think we understand the defense a lot better, understand what we’re supposed to do and how we’re supposed to do it. We’ve figured out how to correct some of the mistakes we made last year.”
The 6-6, 260-pound Iddings had four tackles and a sack in the win over Indiana State. The Coyotes sacked Sycamore quarterbacks five times and limited the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s top passing team (308 ypg.) to just 82 yards.
Senior end Emilious Davis and sophomore tackle Nick Jacobs also saw time as starters a year ago. Junior linebacker Kyle Guziec returned an interception for a touchdown against Missouri State while Auston Johnson (34 tackles) has fit in well after transferring from El Camino (Calif.) College.
Cornerbacks Jarrid Bryant and Dyllon Knox have each recorded interceptions while safety Aaron Swift has a fumble recovery and Devin Taverna leads the team with 45 tackles. Tevin Foster, a true freshman, filled in for Bryant when he left last Saturday’s game early after a blow to the head.
“As long as the D-line has been pressuring the quarterback, it’s giving us time to cover and stay on top of the routes,” Knox said. “Our safeties run the show, so having them in the system last year was really big.”
Jason Petrino is in his second season as defensive coordinator.
“In the secondary we feel like we’re an athletic group and if you challenge us we say, hey, we’ll take it all day,” said Bryant, a senior transfer from Arizona State. “I’m not worried, Knox isn’t worried, Devin isn’t worried, Swift isn’t worried, T-Starr, it doesn’t matter. We’re up for the challenge.”
Saturday’s game at UNI could be a defensive battle considering the 13th-ranked Panthers are fourth in the FCS in scoring defense and sixth in tackles for loss.