VERMILLION, S.D. | Chances are, not many figured that at this point in the season, South Dakota would be tied for second in the Missouri Valley Football Conference and the University of Northern Iowa tied for last.
But that’s the way it is after two straight USD victories and two losses in a row by the Panthers, who host the Coyotes at 4 o’clock today at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Northern Iowa started the season with four straight wins – including a triumph over Iowa State – but has since dropped league games to top-ranked North Dakota State and Southern Illinois.
South Dakota, which lost three of its first four, beat Missouri State and Indiana State by identical 17-14 margins the last two weeks at the DakotaDome. Those were the first two MVFC wins after nine straight losses.
“They’re playing very well and have done a nice job of turning their program,” said UNI Coach Mark Farley. “They’re playing well, playing confident and playing great defense. South Dakota is a much-improved football team. They have the No. 1 pass defense in the country and their offense is doing a good job.”
The Panthers, still ranked 13th nationally, will no doubt be in a foul mood after a narrow loss to two-time defending FCS national champion North Dakota State and a 24-17 overtime setback to Southern Illinois last week.
“They’ll be a little angry and at the same time our kids will be optimistic,” USD Coach Joe Glenn said. “At least we’re finding a way to win some close games. We have to play a clean game, the kids know it, the coaches know it, and if we do we might give them a run for their money.”
The Coyotes are not only ranked first in pass defense (105.0 yards per game) but are also sixth in total defense (282.7 ypg.) and 11th in scoring defense (18 ppg.).
USD and UNI feature two of the top three defenses in the Valley. USD ranks second in total defense and third in scoring defense. UNI is second in scoring defense (15 ppg.) and third in total defense (325 ypg).
“I’m just really proud of those guys, we have some experience and they’ve been playing a lot of guys,” Glenn said. “Our secondary has come together with a couple new faces, Tyler Starr is just phenomenal and Keyen Lage is making a name for himself on the other side and mixing in a lot of different guys up front. I hope we can hold up against probably the best offense we’ve seen so far.”
Starr, despite sitting out the second half of last week’s game after being ejected the previous week for a helmet-to-helmet hit, shares the league lead in sacks and tackles for loss with UNI defensive end Collin Albrecht.
Sophomore Kevin Earl is 2-0 since replacing Josh Vander Maten as the starting quarterback. The Coyotes rushed for 205 yards last week as redshirt freshman Trevor Bouma had a career-high 145 yards on 28 carries.
David Johnson, one of just three UNI players to record at least 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving, has 710 rushing yards (5 touchdowns) and 284 receiving (4 TDs) this season. The Clinton, Iowa, product was slowed by a hip pointer in the loss last week, finishing with just 17 yards on the ground.
USD, though, ranks last in the conference in rushing yards allowed per game.
Quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen has completed 61 percent of his passes (97 of 159) for 1,201 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The Panthers lost their leading tackler, linebacker Mark Farley (the coach’s son) to a broken leg in the NDSU game. Farley had 56 tackles in five games while senior linebacker Jordan Gacke, a former high school teammate of Starr’s at Central Lyon/George-Little Rock, ranks second with 45 stops. Gacke, however, was also banged up a bit in last week’s game.