VERMILLION, S.D. – In order to start 3-0 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference for the second straight season, South Dakota must conquer a battle-tested and perennially strong University of Northern Iowa squad Saturday.
UNI enters the first night game at the DakotaDome since 2009 with a 2-3 overall record, but that is deceiving. The Panthers’ three losses are to nationally ranked Montana, at Iowa and FCS top-ranked North Dakota State.
And, North Dakota State scored three times in the final few minutes when turnovers on downs gave the Bison short fields on three straight possessions in a 56-31 victory.
South Dakota (3-2) has overcome halftime deficits to win each of its first two conference games by seven points. The latest was a 35-28 triumph over an improved Missouri State team last Saturday.
“Offensively that might have been one of our more consistent efforts,” USD Coach Bob Nielson said. “I thought we played better up front, created some opportunities. We had struggled the last few weeks to move the ball with the consistency we have wanted to move the ball with and I thought there was some improvement in that area.
“Defensively we continue to make timely stops. They had seven possessions in the second half and only scored on one of those. Even though we gave up some yards and probably had some opportunities to get them off the field better our defense rose to the occasion and helped us find a way to win.”
The Coyotes had their top rushing game to date despite playing without starter Kai Henry, who missed the game because of an injury. Ben Klett rushed for 96 yards and three touchdowns in his first collegiate start while Brandon Thull had nine carries for 37 yards in his debut after serving a four-game suspension.
Quarterback Austin Simmons was his usual self and has passed for at least 330 yards in three of five starts. Simmons is the nation’s fourth-leading passer at 319 yards per game.
All-MVFC safety Andrew Gray was named the national defensive player of the week and was tabbed player of the week for the second straight time. Gray became the first Coyote defender to force three turnovers in a game since 2007, forcing two fumbles and intercepting a pass.
Linebacker Alex Coker made a game-saving fourth down stop at the goal line with an assist from Nick Kramer, who fought off a block to force Missouri State quarterback Peyton Huslig to pitch early on an option play.
“It just shows that our kids play with some resilience,” Nielson said. “Even though they moved the ball down inside the 5-yard line our defense didn’t give it up, kept them out of the end zone and made a big play on fourth down. Those are the kind of things you want to see your defense and football team do, which is keep battling.”
The winning touchdown turned out to be a 40-yard touchdown pass from Simmons to Levi Falck, who hauled in his first collegiate scoring pass. Falck has a team-leading 26 catches for 289 yards this season.
Saturday’s win vaulted the Coyotes back into the national rankings to No. 24 this week. UNI is just on the outside looking in, receiving votes.
“We’re playing a different type of football team this week, a team that has an outstanding defense and have proven time and again that they’re very good up front defensively and a team that’s going to be difficult to generate consistent offense,” Nielson said. “So we have to find a way to be able to do that and do a better job of taking advantage of scoring opportunities. I thought we left far too many points on the field last week either by not converting red zone possessions for touchdowns.”
All things considered, to be 2-0 at this stage and one of two unbeaten teams in the league (NDSU is the other), USD will take it.
“It’s where you want to be, I think we’re improving as a football team,” Nielson said. “We just have to keep improving because every week a great team is going to be on the schedule.”
UNI quarterback Eli Dunne passed for a season-high 362 yards and three touchdowns against the Bison. Trevor Allen leads the team with 341 rushing yards.
On defense, redshirt freshman linebacker Chris Kolarevic leads the team with 54 tackles and is tied for second in the league. The Panthers have intercepted seven passes through five games.
UNI is 7-2 against the Coyotes since 2008, including a 34-29 win last season at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa.