VERMILLION, S.D. | A couple of bold moves by the University of South Dakota football staff have helped pave the way for the three-game winning streak the Coyotes take into today’s game at Illinois State.
At about the same time, Kevin Earl was promoted to starting quarterback and wide receiver Riley Donovan had his redshirt lifted.
Earl, a 6-foot-6 sophomore from Lincolnshire, Ill., has passed for 784 yards and four touchdowns while Donovan, a freshman from Kasson, Minn., has 14 receptions for 228 yards and a couple of touchdowns.
Last Saturday, in a 38-31 double overtime win at nationally ranked Northern Iowa, Earl passed for 370 yards and accounted for five touchdowns while Donovan had nine catches for 178 yards and two TDs.
It was a tough decision for the coaches to make, unseating Josh Vander Maten, who started every game last season. Vander Maten, though, has since moved to wide receiver and contributed in all three come-from-behind victories.
“I didn’t see his (Earl’s) tape because I wasn’t here but he won over 20 games in two years as a starter in high school so obviously he was recruited for a reason,” second-year South Dakota Coach Joe Glenn said. “He was a real good quarterback, you probably just couldn’t see it in practice. Until the lights go on in the stadium and you run out there with your game uniform on, then you find out a little bit more about all your athletes, if they can do it when the chips are down.
“Kevin has really improved with the play he’s gotten and especially took a step forward in the last game.”
Earl returns to his home state today to face Illinois State at Hancock Stadium in Normal, Ill. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.
Kevin’s older brother, Preston, walked on at Illinois State and spent three seasons there, but didn’t get a chance to play. He wound up transferring to NCAA Division III Benedictine prior to his senior season and led the Eagles to their first conference championship in 62 years, passing for 2,200 yards and 25 touchdowns.
“I used to go to their games and I always respected the program,” Earl said. “It was my first taste of FCS football. My brother always told me how great the competition was in the Valley. There are NFL players on every team.”
The Earls are the sons of Robin Earl, who played for the Chicago Bears from 1977-83, serving as Walter Payton’s blocking fullback for three seasons. Kevin was 21-2 as a starter at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in suburban Chicago.
As for Donovan, he earned his shot when Austin Koch suffered a concussion at Western Illinois on Sept. 28 and had the game of his life in the UNI-Dome. He hauled in scoring passes of 48 and 43 yards.
“We knew Riley was good but I don’t think we had any idea he would have that kind of a game,” Glenn said. “Although he’s fast and tall and athletic, a terrific athlete in other sports as well. That’s been a really pleasant surprise and Riley stepped up big time for us Saturday.”
“I wasn’t expecting I’d play this year,” said the 6-1, 185-pound Donovan. “But I was traveling one week and they said I was starting. So it was like ‘Let’s go.”
Illinois State (3-4, 2-2 MVFC) is coming off its best game of the season, a 55-14 rout of Indiana State. The Redbirds racked up a season-high 475 yards offense, including a career-high 137 rushing yards by Marshaun Coprich, who scored three three touchdowns. Blake Winkler completed 10 of 15 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns.
Like Earl, Winkler wasn’t the starting quarterback when the season began, but took in the second game.
“What I like about Blake is that (he has) only thrown three interceptions in the last couple of weeks,” Illinois State Coach Brock Spack said. “Every game is a new experience for him but he’s very smart and competitive and the ball comes off his hand well. He’s had his growing pains but it’s been a move that’s really helped us.”
Illinois State must contend with a South Dakota defense ranked first nationally in pass yards allowed (117 ypg), sixth in total defense (298 ypg) and 16th in scoring defense (20 ppg.).
“I’ve always been impressed with what USD does,” Sprack said. “As far as schemes go, both of their coordinators do a nice job of doing what their players can do and they always seem to improve as the season goes on.
“We look forward to playing them because they’re a lot of fun and it’s a team that’s playing very well, particularly on defense.”
USD (4-3, 3-1) rallied from a 28-7 deficit to force overtime at UNI, eventually winning in two extra sessions. The victory snapped an 18-game road losing streak for the Coyotes, who also picked up their first-ever Missouri Valley Football Conference road win.