VERMILLION, S.D. | The re-energized South Dakota Coyotes will be gearing for another week of practice after picking up the first FCS playoff win in school history Saturday.
What looked like a probable overtime game turned into a 38-31 victory over Nicholls in Thibodaux, Louisiana when defensive back Phillip Powell stripped the ball from Nicholls’ Kyran Irvin inside the 1-yard line.
The Coyotes recovered in the end zone, but had to wait out a review after officials originally ruled Irvin was down.
“Honestly, I thought the spot they reviewed before could have gone either way,” South Dakota Coach Bob Nielson said. “The only thing, you try to watch the replay board and you don’t know if that’s everything they have. The guys in our booth were calling down saying the ESPN guys were saying the ball was out. When that came out, I knew those reviews they had that the replay would be overturned.”
Moments earlier, another review went against the Coyotes when quarterback Chase Fourcade appeared to be stopped short of a first down on fourth-and-3.
Nevertheless, USD survived a couple of Nicholls rallies and advanced to a quarterfinal at Sam Houston State on Saturday.
It took another monstrous effort from Missouri Valley Football Conference Offensive Player of the Year Chris Streveler and the late heroics by a defense that gave up plenty of yards but made the biggest play with the game on the line.
Streveler passed for 378 yards and four touchdowns and finished with 412 total yards, setting the MVFC single-season total yardage record in the process.
“Playoffs are a different intensity,” said Streveler, who completed 25 of 37 passes. “The ending, the way it was coming down, the stoppages, going back and forth. Even in the second half, it was back and forth the whole game. It was fun to be a part of.”
Interceptions by Isaac Armstead (in the end zone) and Mike Johnson helped boost the Coyotes to a 17-7 halftime lead. It looked as if USD – which entered the game as a prohibitive favorite – would be able to seize control and possibly cruise to a win.
Even more so when wide receiver Brandt Van Roekel won a 50-50 battle with a defender, made a leaping catch and raced the final 20 yards of a 47-yard touchdown play that made the score 24-14. The Coyotes went up 31-21 when Streveler teamed with Trystn Ducker for a 75-yard scoring strike late in the third quarter.
But Nicholls, which just four seasons ago endured a winless campaign, showed resilience and battled back to tie it at 31-31 on a 43-yard field goal with 8:25 remaining. The Colonels had 232 passing and 232 rushing yards, outgaining USD 464-452.
USD managed only 74 rushing yards, creating a major imbalance in its offensive attack.
“Their defensive front is as good as we’ve played this year,” Nielson said. “We struggled in the first half with protection. I thought we were better in the second half and gave Chris more time to throw and as a result he was more effective. We struggled running the football all day and last week we rushed for 250 yards.”
Big plays, though, carried the Coyotes on both sides of the ball.
“You never want to have to rely on big plays to put points on the board, but today that’s the way we had to get it done a couple of times,” Streveler said. “When we had to put together drives, we did that as well. All around I was happy with what we were doing offensively.”
“They just executed well,” Powell said. “Hats off to them but our defense just buckled down and made a few stops at the end to keep them from scoring. The coaches just kept motivating us. We never thought the game was out of our hands, we thought we were in control the whole time.”
USD’s defense will be tested even more this weekend at Sam Houston State, another Southland Conference program that blasted Nicholls 66-17 in the third week of the season.
The sixth-ranked Bearkats (10-1) received a bye and earned one of the top eight playoff seeds. The game will be played in Huntsville, Texas, at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Sam Houston State leads the nation in offense, averaging 544 yards per game (South Dakota is second at 512). Quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe won the Walter Payton Award as the best player in FCS last year and is a finalist again this season, while wide receiver Davion Davis was the Southland Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
“We’re going to have to be more consistent on offense and get back to being better balanced,” Nielson said. “I don’t want to take anything away from what Nicholls did because their plan was really good and they executed well, but Sam Houston State is a very good football team and it’s a matchup of the top two offenses in FCS football.”