Kicking woes sink Coyotes on D-Day

Whether it was defensive lapses in crucial situations, an inability to score when given chances or simply dropped interceptions, there are areas to focus on in the dramatic loss for the University of South Dakota football team.

But it was kicks — or missed kicks, to be exact — that sealed the deal.

A blocked extra point in overtime followed by a UC Davis touchdown and a game-winning extra point propelled the visitors past USD 24-23 in a thriller Saturday afternoon in front of 9,884 fans on homecoming in the DakotaDome.

"This is a tough one to lose," said USD coach Ed Meierkort, who suffered his third home loss in six years. "I feel bad for our kids, they played hard."

The loss, USD's first on D-Days since 2000, overshadowed a two-touchdown comeback in the second half by the Coyotes (3-3), who fell to O-2 in the Great West Conference.

Tied 17-17 after regulation, USD began the overtime session with a drive that brought the Coyotes down to the 2-yard line. Senior quarterback Noah Shepard then scored on a short rush, giving USD a 23-17 lead.

On came freshman walk-on kicker Sam Sawyer for the extra point try. However, the kick was blocked by Davis lineman Jacob Maxson, eliciting smattering of boos from the Dome crowd. It was the third missed kick in the game, as Sawyer had two earlier field goals sail wide right.

In the last two seasons, USD has tried to find the right solution at the kicker position. Last year it was transfer Justin Veazie, and this season, the Coyotes have used wide receiver Dustin Nowotny in that role, as well as Sawyer.

"We can't kick the ball; we're not good enough at that spot," Meierkort said. "We have a scholarship kicker not kicking because he's not good enough. Then we put a young kid in there and he kicked as hard as he could, but missed it."

Still, the Coyotes had a chance to win even after the blocked kick.

With the ball on the following possession, the Aggies lost one yard on three plays, setting up a fourth-and-11 at the 26. Ignoring the deafening Dome crowd, quarterback Greg Denham found wide receiver Chris Carter over the middle for a 23-yard completion.

Two plays later, Joe Trombetta scored on a 2-yard touchdown and Sean Kelley kicked the game-winning extra point.

"We were less than inches from winning that game, but just came up short," said USD defensive lineman Wayne Curry, who recorded three sacks. "Like coach Meierkort has been saying, when we're playing good teams like this and we have opportunities in our hands, we've got to take advantage."

In the second half, at least, the Coyotes were the ones taking advantage.

Though Davis led 10-3 at halftime and later 17-3 midway through the third quarter, the USD offense found its groove and the Coyote defense was getting pressure on Denham.

At the 4:53 mark of the third quarter, Shepard capped off a 72-yard drive with a 7-yard touchdown to Nowotny. Following an Aggies' punt, the Coyotes needed just five plays to march 99 yards, ending with a 37-yard touchdown pass from Shepard to Ben Oberle.

Though Sawyer missed a 31-yard field goal with 4:26 to play in regulation, the USD defense forced the Davis offense to punt on the ensuing possession — which included a critical sack by Curry on a third-and-10 play.

"I thought in the second half, we were pretty much in control," Meierkort said. "That was as good of an effort I've had defensively against a team like that."

The two teams combined to accumulate 918 yards of total offense, led by USD's 476. Shepard finished 20-of-30 for a season-high 311 yards and two touchdowns, while freshman Tom Flanagan caught five passes for 50 yards.

USD also rushed for 165 yards in the loss, led by 74 yards from Chris Ganious.

"I give full credit to South Dakota, they got down but kept fighting back," UC Davis coach Bob Biggs said. "Their kicking game let them down, but we left a lot of points on the table as well.

"We were lucky to come away with a win, to be honest."

In the win for UC Davis (2-3, 1-0 GWC), Denham — named the league's Offensive Player of the Week — passed for 380 yards and two touchdowns. Carter and Bakari Grant each caught six passes, while Grant had two touchdowns.

USD embarks on a two-week road trip, starting with next Saturday's contest at Montana State, followed by an Oct. 31 date with Northern Colorado.

The only question now is, how will the Coyotes respond to consecutive losses?

"We've got to put this behind us," said tight end London Landry, who caught three passes in Saturday's loss. "If we don't move on, this could haunt us for a long time. All we can do is get ready for the next game."

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