Words like "must-win," "critical" and "huge" were used to describe Saturday's 24-19 victory over Southern Utah for the South Dakota football team.
If the Coyotes are to make a serious run at a Great West Conference title, getting that first win in a four-game league schedule is certainly key.
"It's so critical," said head coach Ed Meierkort, whose team rushed for a season-best 247 yards and converted a crucial fourth-and-inches play with 1:50 left to secure the homecoming win.
"People say, 'You only have to win four games,' but you still have to win four games," he added. "It's very important that you defend home turf, and that was big for us."
Sure, the Coyotes also started last year's conference schedule with a win, only to lose three straight. That is precisely the reason Saturday's win over last year's league champion means so much.
"We tried to say this was a must-win, because when you play in such a small conference, every game is almost like two for you," senior offensive lineman Tom Compton said.
"If you lose, it's that much harder to fight back."
Fortunately for USD (4-2, 1-0), there wasn't much fighting back necessary on Saturday, only holding off a late rally by the Thunderbirds.
Southern Utah, once down two touchdowns, got within 14-13 after a field goal on the first drive of the third quarter. Following a touchdown pass and a field goal, the Thunderbirds scored on an 8-yard pass from Brad Sorensen to Abbel Aiono with 3:59 to play.
Though they stopped a two-point conversion try, the Coyotes were faced with a fourth-and-inches prospect with 1:50 to play.
A potential loss stared USD in the face. If the Coyotes were unable to convert, the Thunderbirds would have had plenty of time – and great field position – to make up five points.
Junior running back Marcus Sims, the offensive hero of the day, rushed ahead for the necessary yardage, and the Coyotes were able to kneel out the remaining 1:50 and pick up that all-important Great West win.
"It's huge," said Sims, who carried the ball 25 times for 153 yards for easily his best collegiate performance. "It's our first conference game and it gets us on the right track.
"Hopefully we can win out; that's the plan."
Southern Utah (3-3, 0-2) knows all about winning out in Great West action. Last season, the Thunderbirds won all four league games to claim the title – with still two games remaining its season.
That's how fast the league race goes when there are only five teams.
"It's all or nothing," Southern Utah coach Ed Lamb said. "Last year we were the beneficiaries of that. We won four games, were conference champs, and it felt like, 'Geez, that was short.'"
"This year, it feels short quick because we're out of it."
The only other league team to play a Great West game so far is North Dakota, which beat Southern Utah. Cal Poly and UC Davis have yet to play a league game.
USD, meanwhile, still has three Great West games remaining toward its goal of winning the league title.
The Coyotes play a non-conference game next Saturday at Illinois State, but return to Vermillion Oct. 22 for a matchup with UC Davis.
"This is a good team," Meierkort said. "We've got two losses, to Air Force and Wisconsin. This team's going to go places."
USD stops the run
Once again, the Coyote defense was able to force a spread offense to become one-dimensional.
USD limited Southern Utah to 11 yards rushing, effectively taking away that aspect of the offense. The Thunderbirds were forced to move the ball through the air, which they did for 303 yards on 44 attempts.
"We knew coming off last year, that we needed to stop the run," said senior linebacker Adam Broders, who led the Coyotes with 17 tackles.
"That was our main point, if we could stop the run, we could play the pass more."
Saturday marked the third time this season USD had held a spread offense in check on the ground, all coming in Vermillion. The Coyotes previously limited Eastern Washington to 11 rushing yards and Lindenwood to minus-10 yards.
It does not mean opponents aren't committed to the run, however, USD coach Ed Meierkort said.
"It really does make a difference," Meierkort said. "I know they wanted to run the ball, you could see it in the second half. But when we got that two-possession game going, they had to throw it.
"You cannot allow a team with a quarterback as steady as he is to run the ball," said Meierkort, referencing Southern Utah quarterback Brad Sorensen who completed 32-of-44 passes for 303 yards.