VERMILLION, S.D. | Chances are, it won’t be a problem, but this is one of those weeks that the high-flying South Dakota football team must guard against the proverbial letdown.
Thanks to a heart-stopping 31-28 victory over Youngstown State on Dakota Days, the unbeaten Coyotes rose to No. 4 in the Football Championship Subdivision national poll, their highest ranking since 1987 when they were No. 1 in NCAA Division II for the first six weeks of the season.
Winless Indiana State (0-5) pays a visit to the DakotaDome on Saturday, facing a 5-0 USD squad that’s been equal to every task thus far this season.
“We’re continuing to move in the right direction,” second-year South Dakota Coach Bob Nielson said. “If you want to have an opportunity to be in the league race at the end you’re going to have to win some big games, particularly the games at home, and Youngstown is a very talented football team, so it was a great win for our team and program.”
Ryan Weese kicked a 29-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining to give the Coyotes the dramatic win over Bo Pelini’s then third-ranked Youngstown State team. The win came before a crowd of over 10,000 and vaulted USD two spots to No. 4, trailing only defending national champion James Madison, North Dakota State and Jacksonville State.
“It’s good to be recognized and now in order to continue to be recognized in that regard you have to keep playing well, which means we have to keep improving and prepare well every week,” Nielson said.
The Coyotes have had to overcome some adversity the last couple of weeks, holding off a furious Western Illinois rally on the road a couple of weeks ago and then making a huge defensive stand last week to set up the game-winning drive.
“We’re playing at a much higher level defensively than we were a year ago,” Nielson said. “We’re not going to shut down an offense like Youngstown’s but you have to make them work and I thought we made them work for what they got on Saturday. We made a few key stops at critical times that got them off the field and got the ball back to our offense.”
Chris Streveler passed for a season-high 360 yards and three touchdowns while Shamar Jackson caught 11 passes for a school record 229 yards and a score. Streveler has accounted for 20 touchdowns and hasn’t committed a turnover despite 155 pass attempts and 90 carries.
“I think when we get into positions like that we’re comfortable being in close games,” Streveler said. “The first two games we got off to big leads and the last couple ended up being a little closer but I don’t think anybody was panicking, I think we all felt comfortable where we were getting an opportunity. Nobody’s trying to do too much, everyone is just staying in their role and taking it play by play.”
South Dakota is the only program at any level that has yet to commit an offensive turnover, ranking first in total offense (537 yards per game) and second in scoring (45.2 points per game).
Although Indiana State hasn’t won a game, this week marks the fifth game in a row for the Sycamores against a nationally ranked opponent.
And, the Coyotes need only to harken back to last season, when they pulled out a 33-30 double overtime victory in Terra Haute, Indiana.
“Our guys understand that every game is a new challenge and if you don’t play your very best you’re going to get beat in our conference,” Nielson said. “Indiana State is a very good football team. I’m really impressed with their defense and how hard they play, the things they do on defense is totally different preparation from what we’ve seen the last couple of weeks.
“Offensively they have a talented running back and a couple of outstanding receivers. So it’s going to take a great effort by us on Saturday and, honestly, there are some areas where we have to keep getting better.”
LeMonte Booker is back at running back for ISU after missing last season because of an injury and ranks 16th nationally at 97 yards per game. Cade Sparks, who supplanted last year’s starter Isaac Harker, has passed for 678 yards and four touchdowns.
The Sycamores have switched from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 under new head coach Curt Mallory. They lost to North Dakota State 52-0 last week.
“Their quarterback does a great job, he takes care of the ball so well,” Mallory said. “He’s a veteran player who can beat you with his feet and has a big-time arm. I love his competitiveness, the way he leads the football team. They’re big and physical up front, and have big targets at wide receiver so they’re another dangerous offense.
“When you watch them play, they’re balanced and Coach Nielson has done a remarkable job in a short time there. They’re doing it the right way, running and throwing the football and playing really well on defense.”