Call it a coming out party for the University of South Dakota football program.
In the first true Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) home game for the second-year Division I squad, USD made its presence felt in a big way.
Thanks to a complete defensive domination in the second half, keyed by a surprising onside kick to start the third quarter, the Coyotes trounced Southeastern Louisiana 44-13 Saturday, Sept. 26 in the DakotaDome.
Not only did USD (3-1) avenge a one-point loss to SLU last season, but it dominated in every area of this year's matchup.
"This was monumental," said USD senior quarterback Noah Shepard, who passed for 259 yards and two touchdowns to go along with 96 rushing yards and two scores.
"For our progress and taking that next step, we needed this. We're trying to become a legitimate FCS team."
Coming off a rout of FCS non-scholarship Drake last week, that goal for USD took a significant step forward.
Though the Coyotes once led 14-3 early in the second quarter, SLU stormed back. The Lions connected on a 20-yard field goal and later recovered a USD fumble to set up a 23-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Brian Babin to Simmie Yarborough late in the half.Another fumble by the hosts at the end of the quarter sent the game to halftime at 14-13 – far from dominating.USD head coach Ed Meierkort said he and his coaching staff realized that SLU (2-2) could be susceptible to an onside kick, because of how many players the Lions dropped back for return blocking.
Seeing an opportunity to steal back the momentum, the Coyotes attempted and completed the kick to start the second half – which took nearly every one of the 8,121 fans in attendance by surprise.
"Sometimes we play these FCS games not to lose instead of playing to win," said Meierkort, who improved to 29-2 at home in his USD career. "It was a golden opportunity to practice what we preach."
Forty-seven seconds into the second half, Shepard hit wide receiver Ben Oberle for a 54-yard touchdown. And after each team traded punts, USD recovered a SLU fumble, setting up the eventual blowout.
"We knew we had to come out and play all four quarters. That's the way we saw it, all week," said sophomore running back Chris Ganious, who ran for a 12-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter, giving USD a 27-13 lead.
"We just had to keep pushing."On the ensuing SLU possession, USD senior defensive back Mychal Bogan intercepted a Babin pass. That set up the Coyotes for a 47-yard field goal by Dustin Nowotny, just over two minutes later.
"Throughout the week, coach Meierkort kept telling us that the defense was so nervous," Bogan said. "We were playing not to lose, instead of playing to win. We came out with emotion and that fire we've been looking for in these big games."
In the fourth quarter, USD got a pair of one-yard rushing touchdowns by Shepard – his seventh and eighth of the season – to push the eventual margin of victory to 44-13.
Yet, it wasn't necessarily the 536 yards of total offense by USD that was the story, instead it was the second-half play by the defense.After allowing the Lions 232 yards in the first half, the Coyotes held SLU to 15 total yards in the second half, including negative 34 on the ground.Excluding SLU's final drive of the game, which accounted for 14 yards, the Coyote domination becomes clearer.
"The key for us was that we had to be more physical on either side of the ball up front," Meierkort said. "We can't run with those (SLU) kids. We needed to get after their quarterback and keep the ball away from them with our run game."
Both proved successful, as USD finished with six sacks and had 277 rushing yards. Ganious led the running game with 101 yards and two touchdowns on runs of 3 and 12 yards.
With leading receiver Dan Skelly out and sophomore wide-out/kick returner Jeremy Blount leaving with a broken left arm in the first quarter, the Coyotes relied heavily on Vermillion native Oberle. The senior caught seven passes for 110 yards and a touchdown.
"All of us had to step up. Dan Skelly has big shoes to fill," he said. "Noah finds the guy who's open, and it just happened to be me today."
With FCS win No. 3 (including last year) under their belts, the Coyotes turn their attention to rival North Dakota (1-2). USD and UND will meet on Saturday at 4 p.m. in Grand Forks, ND.
"Any time you get an FCS win in the second year, it's exciting," Meierkort said. "This is a different level we're at now. We're not the big kids on the block anymore, we're the new kids on the block.
"Hopefully this can keep pushing us on to some more."