By Jeremy Hoeck
A game the league newcomers could have won did not play out that way because of an early hole and more mistakes.
There will be plenty of learning moments for the University of South Dakota as it wades through the Missouri Valley Football Conference waters, and Saturday afternoon, Sept. 29, gave the Coyotes plenty of those.
In a contest that saw nearly 1,000 combined yards of offense, No. 12-ranked Illinois State held off USD 34-31 at the DakotaDome.
"We felt like, coming in, we were as good if not better than Illinois state," said USD sophomore receiver Terrence Terry, who led with seven catches for 89 yards and a touchdown. "We felt like we had a good game plan, and we executed that game plan.
"In the Missouri Valley, you have to win close games, and we just couldn't do it today."
Fitting for a league debut for the Coyotes (1-3, 0-1), a wild series of events in the fourth quarter swung the momentum in two directions.
Down 24-17 with under 10 minutes to play, the Coyotes forced — and recovered — a fumble, setting up a 41-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Sims on the ensuing play.
Tie game, 24-24.
The Redbirds themselves needed just one play, getting a 79-yard touchdown pass from Matt Brown to Donovan Harden with 9:13 to play. The lead was one ISU would never give back, despite a late touchdown from the Coyotes.
In short, USD had its chances to pull another home upset.
"It was one of those games where about when you thought we were out of it, we got back in it, and when we had the momentum, they answered," head coach Joe Glenn said.
"Both teams competed at a very high level, but ultimately in the end we made too many mistakes to get the victory."
Tops in that area? Penalties.
USD committed seven penalties in the first half, leading directly to two Illinois State touchdown drives. In all, the Coyotes were flagged for nine penalties for 98 yards.
It all helped the visiting team walk away with a win; not something that happens very often in the DakotaDome.
"It's tough to win on the road anywhere in college football, and we warned our players of that," ISU coach Brock Spack said. " They're used to winning here, it was tough.
"I was just disappointed, we had control of the game and let them get back into it."
A pair of big plays on each team's opening drive seemed to suggest a competitive affair.
Illinois State quarterback Matt Brown hit receiver Tyrone Walker for a 58-yard strike on the game's first play, and the Redbirds turned that into a 22-yard field goal.
The Coyotes responded with a 53-yard touchdown run by Sims less than two minutes later, but that was really the extent of anything positive for USD's offense in the first half.
Sims, a senior running back, ran for 120 yards in front of a large contingent of hometown fans from the Twin Cities.
"We have to take the positives from this game, I had a decent game, but it doesn't matter if we didn't win, and get better next week," Sims said. "It was good to see that we were able to run against a great stopping team."
The Coyotes ran for a season-high 193 yards and passed for 277, but still, penalties proved too fatal.
A running into the kicker penalty on USD gave the Redbirds a fresh set of downs and they capitalized with an 8-yard scoring run by Darrelyn Dunn three seconds in the second quarter.
The Coyotes tied the game at 10 on a 32-yard field goal by Kevin Robb with 8:26 left. Illinois State, however, scored the next 14 points.
USD was whistled for unnecessary roughness and later pass interference in the end zone, allowing the Redbirds to get a 1-yard touchdown run by Dunn at the 3:21 mark.
A blocked punt by Illinois State set up Brown for a 12-yard scoring run with nine seconds left in the half — a frustrating finish to what started strong for the hosts.
"This time it happened in special teams," Glenn said, referencing the previous week's effort in a loss at Northwestern. "Two blocked punts, a block in the back, we missed a field goal that's makable in the dome. We just have to play really clean to win."
The third quarter belonged to the Coyotes, who scored on a 46-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Josh Vander Maten to Terry, followed 12 minutes later by a Sims 41-yard screen pass to Sims.
It was then that the crazy series happened.
With 2:34 to play, the Redbirds —up 31-24 — intercepted a Vander Maten pass over the middle and turned it into a 42-yard field goal with 56 seconds to play.
USD scored on a 13-yard pass from Vander Maten to Anthony Williams with 20 seconds remaining — setting the stage for an onside kick, which went to the Redbirds.
"We ran a post stop, but, I have to put it on him to make it easy," Vander Maten. "It was a one out of 100 thing to happen, and it happened. I have full confidence we'll make a better throw next time."
One kneel-down sealed the victory for the Redbirds (5-0, 2-0).
In the case of the Coyotes, one game in the Missouri Valley isn't enough to gauge where they stand. Next week's home game with Western Illinois might prove a little more.
"We know we belong, and we're excited about that," Vander Maten said. "We can only improve from here, and do what we do."
Still, despite all the issues, the conference debut was one USD nearly won.
"You have to win at home. This is a game we had to have," Glenn said. "With all the things that went wrong, you can't do that. We have to keep cleaning it up.
"If we can play with these guys, we should be able to stay with most teams in our league."