VERMILLION, S.D. — Plenty of things went right for the University of South Dakota football team in a rare win at Northern Iowa last week.
The Coyotes posted a dominating 34-21 victory – their third in a row and second over a nationally ranked FCS team – which prompted a jump to No. 15 in the national rankings.
Two things, however, stuck out for Coach Bob Nielson, whose team hosts unranked Illinois State on Saturday.
“One was we took advantage of opportunities early and built a lead,” Nielson said. “It’s one thing to generate turnovers, good field position and other things, you capitalize on it and we did that. We put 24 points on the board to separate the game.
“I think the other thing was probably the response of our football team after UNI made some big plays early in the third quarter and got themselves back in the game. We responded with some scoring drives and a three-and-out in between them and separated the game back. That allowed us to play the fourth quarter very conservatively and just burn clock.”
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Such has been the case for the Coyotes, now 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
USD has outscored FCS opponents 149-31 in the first half and outgained them 268-124.
“To go on the road you have to play with confidence and our team played with confidence,” Nielson said. “The early game success certainly helped in that regard. To go on the road in this league your team has to believe in yourself, play confidently and execute confidently.”
It was USD’s first win in Cedar Falls, Iowa, since 2013.
Now, the Coyotes will seek their first four-game win streak since the 2006 season.
South Dakota and Illinois State are meeting for the second time this calendar year. The Coyotes rallied from a 17-0 deficit to prevail 27-20 back on Feb. 27 in Normal, Illinois.
In that game, Carson Camp became the first true freshman to start a season opener at quarterback in school history.
Although he has still played just 11 college games, Camp has continued to progress with the help of a strong running game.
Three different running backs have eclipsed 100 yards rushing in the last five games. Travis Theis has gone over 100 two games in a row.
“We were able to get enough going in the running game (at UNI) that allowed us to be balanced, which is not an easy thing to do against Northern Iowa,” Nielson said. “In order to do that our front guys have to be able to match the level of physicality their defense brings. Our guys are playing very physically up front right now on both sides of the ball.
“There are some things we can improve on, but we’re playing with high effort and putting ourself in a position where we can be competitive up front.”
Linebacker Jack Cochrane was named the MVFC defensive player of the week after intercepting two passes and totaling seven tackles.
“There’s great leadership on that side of the football,” Nielson said. “We have a lot of experience, headlined in the linebacker grouping. They say you have a chance to have a real good football team when your senior leaders are playing their best football. If you look across the board to our senior leaders on defense, those guys are playing really well.”
Illinois State (2-4, 0-3) has lost three straight to teams ranked No. 7, 16 and 3.
The Coyotes must guard against a letdown in the 1 p.m. game at the DakotaDome. They have next week off before playing another road game at Western Illinois.
Then come the final two regular season contests at home against South Dakota State and at North Dakota State.
“In this league every game is a game,” Nielson said. “Everybody forgets Illinois State was ranked Top 15 in the country at one time, but that’s just how it is in our league. It’s hard to win games because the competition every week is so strong.
“Our guys understand that we have to keep getting better every week and that’s the focus this week. This is a really good team that’s going to be here on Saturday.”
Illinois State is especially tough on defense. The Redbirds have nine interceptions, which ranks ninth nationally.