VERMILLION, S.D. — The first game of the new defensive system for the University of South Dakota left a lot to be desired.
At first, everything was going smoothly for USD’s reworked defense. The Coyotes took away Montana’s ground game early and held the Grizzlies scoreless in the first quarter.
But then Montana made some simple adjustments offensively and USD’s defense couldn’t get off the field.
After converting only 1-of-4 third downs in the first quarter, Montana finished the game converting 10-of-16 third downs and passed for 430 total yards in the 31-17 season-opening win over the Coyotes in the DakotaDome.
“They made adjustments and found the soft spot in our zones a little bit but at the end of the day, we have to come up and make tackles,” USD junior linebacker Jack Cochrane said. “All across the board, there were missed opportunities for plays that could’ve flipped the score around.
“(Montana) made their adjustments, props to them but at the end of the day, the story defensively is us not executing like we are capable of.”
One game isn’t shaking USD’s confidence defensively, though, and it shouldn’t.
During the postgame press conference, USD coach Bob Nielson said it was going to take 30 or more points to beat Montana. The Griz have plenty of returning players offensively, including senior quarterback Dalton Sneed.
This Montana offense was always going to be a tough task for USD’s defense, whether they came in with a new defensive system or a seasoned one that’s been top-20 in the nation for the past few seasons.
Cochrane, Nielson and the rest of the team still believe the team can be a defensively sound team by the end of the season.
“My confidence isn’t shaken at all. It’s about where we can be at the end of the year,” Cochrane said. “We gave some things up today, but I still think we can be a really good football team across the board here.
“We play one week at a time. Our job and our goal each week is to shut teams down, whatever it takes. Obviously, we have to continue to grow with what we saw today. Despite today, all of our goals are still achievable.”
The Coyotes defense showed it has the potential. Last season USD had trouble stopping opponents on the ground. Montana’s run game was stuffed early with only six yards in the first quarter. The Griz only gained 80 yards on 28 carries in the game.
That was a bright spot that Nielson saw.
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“We did a good job of stopping the run which is what (Montana) wanted to do,” Nielson said. “They came out trying to run the football. We took that away.”
But once Montana abandoned the ground game, the Griz were able to find holes in USD’s defense, especially on third down.
USD put Montana in third-and-long situations plenty of times throughout the game but the Griz kept converting time and time again. From the second quarter on, Montana converted 9-of-12 third downs.
“Defensively, we did a good job of getting them into third down and then they converted,” Nielson said. “Whether it was completing a pass or the quarterback scrambling around, they got a couple of those by penalty.
“That’s the disappointing thing, we have to have more answers. That’s something we have to get better at from a coaching standpoint.”
USD’s defense shouldn’t shoulder all of the blame, either. The Coyotes offense had moments where it looked great. Wide receiver Kody Case made a few great catches and tied USD’s single-game record with 11 receptions. He had 144 yards and two touchdowns.
However, the Coyotes struggled to sustain drives. USD was only 2-of-10 on third downs and were 1-of-3 on fourth down. So there is work to do on that side of the ball, too.
But most of the focus was on the defense coming into the season with new defensive coordinator Travis Johansen.
And the schedule doesn’t get any easier for USD’s defense next week when the Coyotes travel to Oklahoma to face one of the best offenses in the nation.
One game isn’t going to discourage Nielson and his team, though, and next week isn’t going to discourage him, either.
He knows there are plenty of games left to play, including a whole Missouri Valley Football Conference slate.
“Overall, there’s certainly a lot to build on. I’m not discouraged. (Montana) will probably be in the thick of things when it’s all said and done in the Big Sky Conference,” Nielson said. “I think we could’ve played better. That’s the only disappointing thing. If we would’ve played better, it was a winnable game for us.
“You put a new system in … this is the first time we got to test it under fire. That’s what opening games do. You find out the things you can do well. You find out the areas you need to put emphasis on.”