VERMILLION, S.D. – Dakota Days produced some drama at the DakotaDome Saturday.
South Dakota came up with a goal-line stand in the closing minutes to preserve a 35-28 Missouri Valley Football Conference victory over Missouri State in the Coyotes' annual homecoming contest before a packed house of 10,092.
Alex Coker sliced in to corral Donovan Daniels for a loss on 4th and goal from the 1-yard line with 2:17 left, but there was still a lot to be decided after the big defensive play.
Missouri State forced a punt and got the ball back, but the Coyote defense came through again when Alex Gray knocked away a Peyton Huslig pass on fourth down from near midfield, preserving USD's second conference win in as many tries.
Although it was a game of missed opportunities for the Coyotes, they still managed to come up with big plays when needed. Perhaps the biggest offensive play came when Austin Simmons rifled a 40-yard touchdown pass to Levi Falck on 3rd and 10 less than two minutes into the fourth quarter.
That made the score 35-28, which wound up of course standing as the final and put the Coyotes over the .500 mark at 3-2 overall.
“It was back and forth and we were down a little bit but I kept the confidence we would be able to pull it out,” said Simmons, who passed for 337 yards.”I thought we did a good job on perimeter blocking and a good job up front. The running backs did a good job and it was a good team win, everybody did a good job.”
Ben Klett, a 235-pound sophomore, got his chance to be the featured running back and responded with a career-high 96 yards and three touchdowns. Freshmen Brandon Thune and Canaan Brooks handled the rest of the ball carrying duties because Kai Henry, the regular starter, didn't play because of an injury.
Klett carried 19 times, scoring on runs of 3, 19 and 2 yards.
“This was the first time (starting) so I knew I had to do my part,” Klett said. “I knew I had to perform above what I normally do.”
South Dakota had to settle for a couple of field goals after moving inside the red zone and missed a couple more field goals. That made things interesting until the end, but as it turned out, it did what it normally does on Dakota Days, which is win.
Upstart Missouri State which hasn't had a winning season since 2007 but is vastly improved, took a 28-27 lead in the see-saw contest when Huslig threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Currie with 2:45 remaining in the third quarter.
Simmons, who completed 28 of 38, zipped a perfect throw to Falck for the go-ahead touchdown, then found Dakarai Allen open for a two-point conversion pass.
“He basically had man on him and the safety kind of ripped out of there but there was a little bit of space and it was just a matter of Levi making the play,” Simmons said. “I liked the matchup and I feel confident in Levi coming down the making the play.
“I thought we did a good job moving the ball, but we were not really finishing. It would have been nice to get those points and put the game away but credit to the defense for buckling down and sealing the deal for us.”
Missouri State quarterback Huslig was a thorn in USD's side all day, passing for 283 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for a team-high 91 yards on 18 carries, most of them on option plays. He moved the Bears from their own 20-yard line beginning at the 9:36 mark of the fourth quarter and ending when Coker came up with the huge defensive play for USD.
When Daniels ran for two yards on 3rd and 1, it gave Missouri State 1st and goal from the USD 6-yard line. Two carries by Huslig took it to the 1, but the Coyotes stoned Donovan on two straight plays, including the one by Coker, a senior linebacker from Washington, Iowa.
“Today was more of a bend and don't break mentality,” Coker said. “Unfortunately they did get the yards they did and we're going to rally from that and check the film and fix whatever we have to fix. At the end that's just a collective defensive effort. It's a bunch of guys who are best friends playing football together.
“They had run that play twice in the red zone and I knew they were going to come back to it. They had their trips tight to the formation and I saw the pitch come and it was my turn to make the play and I did.”
South Dakota wound up with 513 total yards and Missouri State 478 and the defense made just enough plays to give Coach Bob Nielson his 201st career victory.
“It was a good win for our program,” Nielson said. “This year in the league is going to be an interesting year. I totally believe you're going to have to find different ways to win games. We played two types of games over the opening two weeks and found ways to win two of them.
“Give Missouri State credit. Coach (Dave) Steckel and his staff have done a tremendous job. We haven't played them in a long time and that's a really good football team. They do some really good things offensively, some tough stuff to defend and gave us fits all day.”
USD led 14-7 after one quarter courtesy of two Klett touchdown runs. The Bears, however, were able to grab a 21-17 halftime lead when Huslig connected with Antwan Woods with 1:31 remaining before intermission.
An interception by Andrew Gray set up a go-ahead 2-yard plunge by Klett at the 12:04 mark of the third quarter and the Coyotes had to settle for a 39-yard Mason Lorber field goal with 6:47, making it 27-21. Gray forced a fumble that Jacob Headlee caught in mid-air and the Coyotes eventually had it 1st and goal from the MSU 3-yard line.
A fumbled snap, incompletion and sack followed, however, and Lorber came on for his second field goal. He earlier connected from 22 yards, but was wide right on attempts of 36 and 42 yards.
South Dakota plays its first night game at the DakotaDome since 2009 when Northern Iowa comes to town on Saturday.