Not only was the return home festive, but it was successful.
And against a long-time rival, to boot.
Keyed by a strong defensive effort, the University of South Dakota upended North Dakota 27-17 in the Great West Conference opener for both teams Saturday afternoon at the DakotaDome.
In front of a homecoming crowd of 9,596, the Coyotes (3-2) treated the Sioux in a way that hasn't been seen much of late in the 90-year series.
"Any time you can beat the Sioux, it's a feather in your cap," said USD coach Ed Meierkort, who improved to 2-5 against North Dakota in his seven-year career. "It's about time we won a game against them."
Having lost 13 in the last 14 matchups between the Division I FCS partners, USD flipped the script on Saturday – thanks to big offensive days from quarterback Dante Warren and receiver Will Powell.
Warren passed for 268 yards and three touchdowns, two of the highlight variety to Powell, a 3-yard catch in the first quarter and a 20-yard catch in the second quarter.
In other words, performances that were missing in last week's loss at North Dakota State.
"This is one of the most crucial games to our season," Powell said. "We need to get on a roll, and this meant everything to keep our confidence up."
And Saturday, it didn't take long for that confidence to surface.
After UND (2-3) scored a field goal on the it's first drive, the Coyotes used a steady dose of runs in a 17-play, 80-yard drive. The nearly 8-minute series was capped by a pass from Warren to Powell, who made a one-handed, diving grab in the endzone.
Following an interception by USD and a punt by the Coyotes, Warren needed just one play to score again. The junior from suburban Chicago hit wide receiver Jeremy Blount in stride for a 65-yard touchdown.
"All week in practice, coach wanted to give me the ball in the offense; they just trusted me this week," said Blount, who caught four passes for 94 yards.
Though the Coyotes talked all week about re-establishing its running game after struggling in that area against North Dakota State, North Dakota was also prepared for USD's big-play potential through the air, according to UND head coach Chris Mussman.
"The big one was when it got to 14 (points); that was a critical time of the game," Mussman said. "That's exactly what we didn't need at that time of the game. We needed to get a stop, and it's not like they were doing anything we didn't think they would do.
"We got beat on stuff we knew was coming."
The Sioux squandered another scoring chance on the next drive, when a 45-yard field goal sailed wide right. It was indicative of the way the Coyote defense played, leading Meierkort to say later, "We take 'bend but don't break' to a whole new level."
USD held North Dakota – which had scored 109 points in its last two games – to 125 total yards under its season average and 13 points under its scoring average.
The key to that effort, according to USD junior linebacker Adam Broders, was keeping up the pressure for four quarters.
"Coming into the game, we knew it was a big one; the coaches talked about it all week," said the Bloomfield, NE native, who led the defense with 10 tackles, to go along with a fumble recovery and an interception in the game's closing minutes.
"Our defense usually comes out strong in the first half and then has a letdown in the second half, but we did a good job keeping things high."
A 20-yard touchdown to Will Powell with six seconds left in the second quarter gave the Coyotes a commanding 21-3 lead going into halftime – which was also the case in last week's loss in Fargo, ND.
"We treated halftime a little differently," Meierkort said. "I asked the kids, 'What's the score?' And you got the typical 'zero-zero' answer. But I said, 'Nope, it's 21-3.' Sometimes you have to pump these kids' chest to make them better.
"Our guys adjusted and played well."
With the exception of a UND 11-yard touchdown from quarterback Jake Landry to play-making receiver Greg Hardin on the first drive of the third quarter, the Coyotes did just that.
The Coyotes added a pair of field goals, 35 and 45 yards, from freshman punter Kevin Robb in the second half to pull ahead 27-10 early in the fourth quarter.
In the second half, USD recorded a fumble recovery and an interception by Broders – a trend Meierkort said is evidence of the way his defense has played lately.
"Our defense fought and hung in there; made them chip and chip away," Meierkort said. "To be real honest, if you skip the 10 minutes of the third quarter against NDSU, that's how we've been playing defense."
North Dakota trimmed the eventual margin to 27-17 after a 7-yard touchdown pass from Landry to Chris Anderson with 4:31 remaining.
In beating the Sioux for the first time since 2005, when both teams were at the Division II level, the Coyotes kick-started a Great West Conference season that continues next Saturday in California against defending league champion UC Davis.
North Dakota 3 0 7 7—17
South Dakota 7 14 3 3—27
NDAK—FG Z.Miller 44, 8:12.
SDak—Powell 3 pass from Warren (Robb kick), :16.
SDak—Blount 65 pass from Warren (Robb kick), 5:40.
SDak—Powell 20 pass from Warren (Robb kick), :06.
NDAK—Hardin 11 pass from Landry (Z.Miller kick), 13:30.
SDak—FG Robb 35, 10:20.
SDak—FG Robb 45, 14:16.
NDAK—Anderson 7 pass from Landry (Z.Miller kick), 4:31.
First downs 21 21
Rushes-yards 29-116 42-132
Passing 172 268
Comp-Att-Int 20-28-2 20-32-0
Return Yards 0 20
Punts-Avg. 2-30.5 3-34.0
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 1-0
Penalties-Yards 3-20 7-70
Time of Possession 23:16 36:44
RUSHING—North Dakota, Murray 16-102, Landry 9-29, Hardin 2-5, Team 2-(minus 20). South Dakota, Ganious 15-49, Sims 12-45, Warren 12-44, Team 3-(minus 6).
PASSING—North Dakota, Landry 20-28-2-172. South Dakota, Warren 20-32-0-268.
RECEIVING—North Dakota, Murray 6-37, Dressler 4-37, Anderson 4-35, Hardin 3-30, Wisthoff 1-19, Solum 1-10, McGill 1-4. South Dakota, Powell 6-72, Blount 4-94, Landry 3-44, Nowotny 3-25, Flanagan 2-21, Ganious 2-12.