VERMILLION, S.D. – There aren’t many seniors on the University of South Dakota football team, but 13 players will suit up in the DakotaDome for the final time Saturday.
In what has basically turned into a matter of pride, the Coyotes will try to snap what has now warped to a four-game losing streak when they host Western Illinois at 1 o’clock.
The latest in a line of disappointing setbacks could probably be termed heartbreaking since it came in double overtime, 51-48, at Indiana State.
“The bottom line is we moved the ball really well but had the opportunity to score more points,” USD Coach Bob Nielson said. “We didn’t do a great job of converting two or three drives we had deep in their territory. We fumbled one and had to settle for a field goal on another.
“So, I guess you can say we’re snakebitten a little bit but at the same time it’s just not playing real well at critical times in games both offensively or defensively.”
The Coyotes racked up over 600 yards of total offense, set a program record with 39 first downs and the 48 points are the most scored in a defeat in program history.
“We had good balance offensively, we were able to run the football and Austin (Simmons) made good decisions with it for the most part,” Nielson said. “From that standpoint where we’ve been a little bit inconsistent offensively we took a step in the right direction.”
Kai Henry rushed for a career-high 113 yards, becoming the first Coyote to break 100 yards this season.
Nonetheless, the Coyotes limp into the contest against Nielson’s former team in dire need of a victory. Nielson coached at Western Illinois from 2013-15.
“The frustration level is that over the last four weeks there were a fair number of those games we felt kind of slipped through our fingers for one reason or another,” Nielson said. “We had opportunities to win at Indiana State, the Northern Iowa game was one we let get away at the end with some untimely turnovers and at Youngstown State we came out slow and as a result got behind.
“We’ve had opportunities to win and haven’t but I don’t think it’s dampened the spirit of our guys and the understanding we have two games left against two really good football teams that gives us an opportunity to prove that we’re a team that’s better than what our record is.”
Austin Simmons has performed at a high level in his first season as starting quarterback, ranking ninth nationally with 290 passing yards per game. He’s thrown for 2,609 yards, which ranks third in USD single-season history.
This group of seniors has won more games (20) than any that has competed in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Also, it will be remembered as part of the first Coyote team that competed in and won in the FCS playoffs.
“We don’t have a big group of seniors but a group that have been real important parts of our program who have seen some tremendous growth from basically the infancy of Division I to a program that a year ago qualified for the national playoffs for the first time.
“They’re certainly not happy where we’re at, but it will be an opportunity for them to showcase the work they have done one last time here at the DakotaDome.”
Western Illinois stayed in the playoff hunt by scoring 20 unanswered points in the fourth quarter last week to avoid an upset at Southern Illinois. The Leathernecks have won three straight and prevailed at Southern Illinois for the first time since 2000.
Sean McGuire is the second-leading passer in the Valley behind Simmons. Two of his top receivers are running backs Clint Ratkovich (38 receptions, 421 yards) and Steve McShane (37, 348).
Defensively, Western Illinois is tops in the conference against the pass and fourth against the run.
“They’re a very experienced football team which shows in the way that they play,” Nielson said. “They’re starting six seniors on defense and a similar number on offense. I’m obviously very familiar with from the standpoint that we were there during the recruiting process and actually coached them.
“They’ve been able to put pressure on quarterbacks and play very soundly against the run. Their senior quarterback is without question one of the best in the league, he is a great leader and runs their offense well and they have some very talented skill players that create problems for you both carrying the football and defending them on the perimeter.”