VERMILLION, S.D. | To a man, University of South Dakota football players and coaches are determined to take the program’s next step, which translates to turning close losses into victories and making a run at the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
To get there, however, the Coyotes face tough sledding, beginning with a season-opening trip to Eugene, Ore., to take on the mighty Oregon Ducks, ranked No. 4 in the USA Today preseason coaches poll.
Two more tough non-league foes in Montana (on the road) and Northern Arizona (at home) loom before the start of the rugged Missouri Valley Football Conference schedule.
“We wouldn’t want it easy, we like the challenge and competition,” USD quarterback Kevin Earl said. “The Oregon game stands out. That’s going to be something we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. If we can go in there, play smart, not turn the ball over and commit dumb penalties, it’s going to give us huge confidence going into the remaining part of our schedule.”
The Coyotes open MVFC play at Southern Illinois on Oct. 4 before entertaining Northern Iowa the following week. USD pulled out a 38-31 double overtime win at UNI, a perennial FCS playoff team, last season.
The three remaining league games at home are with three-time defending national champion North Dakota State (Oct. 25), Western Illinois (Nov. 8) and Illinois State (Nov. 15).
It will be Coach Joe Glenn’s first trip to Carbondale, Ill., for the conference opener and road tilts at Missouri State and Youngstown State, not to mention the regular season finale at South Dakota State, will certainly be challenging.
The Sports Network has North Dakota State No. 2 in its preseason poll, while Montana is No. 5, Northern Iowa No. 9, South Dakota State No. 10, Northern Arizona No. 23 and Youngstown State No. 24.
“It’s a good league, but everybody in our league’s in it so they all have to fight each other,” said Glenn, beginning his third season as head coach at his alma mater. “You have to defend at home, be strong on your home field and go out and steal a couple wins on the road. You do that and I would think you would be looking at a playoff berth.
“We can’t let the Big Sky get four teams in and us two like last year, that can’t happen again. Let’s hope we’re in the mix fighting for that and taking our program to the next level.”
Josh Vander Maten, a senior quarterback turned wide receiver from Boyden-Hull/Rock Valley, has been around long enough to experience the sting of those tough losses.
“Looking back on these last two years there have been so many times we’re thinking we could have won this game or that game, so many we lost by three points or less or in the final quarter,” Vander Maten said. “If we want to be where we want to be we’re going to have to win those close games in the fourth quarter. I think that comes with maturity, staying cohesive as a group.
“If we do get into a position where we don’t come through, the next week we have to come back and win that close game, we have to keep moving forward. Any time you play in the Missouri Valley, from top to bottom every game will be competitive, that’s what we signed up for. We’re going to play tough competition each game. That’s going to make us better each week and hopefully progressing toward our ultimate goal.
“We know we can play with these teams because we’ve done it the last two years. We feel like we can take that next step and be consistent about winning those close game and taking that next step has a team.”
As for the trip to Oregon for a 9:30 p.m. (central time) kickoff on Aug. 30, Glenn is not the least bit intimidated.
“We’re going to accept the challenge, we have no choice but to go out there and play as hard as we possibly can and be a better team because of it,” Glenn said. “No matter who you play you’re going to learn a lot and you’ll get better from the first game to the second.
“I’ve gone into big places before and hung in there with teams of lesser talent and won. When I was at Wyoming we went to Tennessee and won and beat UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl when we were 14 point underdogs. You never know what can happen, you go out and play your heart out and let the chips fall where they may.”