By Jeremy Hoeck
Victories in the Missouri Valley Football Conference had eluded USD for the previous nine games. Until Saturday, Oct. 5, that is.
Surviving more mistakes, USD used a field goal from freshman Miles Bergner with 1:24 left to beat Missouri State 17-14 for its first-ever Missouri Valley win in Saturday afternoon’s homecoming game at the DakotaDome.
What does it mean for the Coyotes (2-3, 1-1)?
“Everything,” senior linebacker Tyler Starr said. “After that loss to Western Illinois, we knew it was win or die, especially when we’re trying to make the playoffs.”
In the meantime, USD was simply trying to find a way to win games in the league it joined last year. A year ago, the Coyotes were 0-8 in the Missouri Valley, with a handful of narrow defeats mixed in.
“These guys have played so hard, and tried so hard, and the coaches have tried so hard, this has got to help your confidence a little bit,” head coach Joe Glenn said.
“We can play better, that’s what’s incredible about today’s victory,” he added. “We’re close, I know we’re close, we just needed to get a victory.”
Even it was far from a pretty one.
Mistakes by the Coyotes led directly to both touchdowns for Missouri State (1-5, 1-1), the first on a fumble that led to a score three plays later and the second on a blocked punt return for a touchdown.
In total, USD was again hampered by other errors, including an interception, a missed field goal and 10 penalties.
When it came down to crunch time, though, Bergner — a former high school All-American — came through. He had earlier missed a 31-yard field goal with 5:14 left in the fourth quarter that could have given USD the lead.
“I’ve always made it a point when a guy makes a bad play, to get him over on the side and say, ŒI know you feel bad, we all feel bad, but you may have to come back and make a play at the end of the game,’” Glenn said.
There were no such recoveries for the Coyote defense, though. It was stifling from the opening kick to the final play.
USD’s defense held the Bears to 76 total yards in the first half, including 19 rushes for 23 yards. For the game, MSU ran for 105 yards on 36 attempts — a 2.9 average.
The Coyotes, the FCS leaders in pass defense, also allowed only 72 yards through the air. Missouri State, just 7-of-22 passing, never really looked comfortable — and that’s by design, according to USD senior cornerback Jarrid Bryant.
“You can’t cover everything, you pick certain things to take away,” said Bryant, who had one of USD’s two interceptions. “Take away what they really like to do, what they’ve been successful with in the past, and make them uncomfortable.”
On the other side, the USD offense was hoping a change at quarterback would loosen things up a little bit and get things rolling.
Kevin Earl, a 6-foot-6 sophomore, was moved to the starting job — following a week-long effort by USD to keep that a secret — and junior Josh Vander Maten was moved to a receiver role.
“For me, personally, things changed quickly and pretty drastically,” said Earl, who finished 22-of-35 for 159 yards and a touchdown and an interception. “Throughout the week, I could tell everything felt different.
“Once I got out there, it was the same old thing that we’ve been practicing. It felt good to complete some passes and move on with it.”
The moment that stood out most in Earl’s starting debut? The game-tying two-point conversion after the Bouma touchdown early in the fourth quarter was proof of Earl’s calm, Glenn said.
Nearly every one of Earl’s options were covered by the Bears, but he stood in the pocket and eventually hit receiver Riley Donovan on a crossing pattern.
“That’s a big-time play,” Glenn said of Earl. “He’s capable of making big-time plays, you can see that.”
Earl sparked the offense with a 5-of-8 effort on the game’s first drive, but he was intercepted at the goal line by MSU linebacker Christian Hoffman.
Three plays later, USD did the same. Linebacker Kyle Guziec scooped up a deflection and returned the interception 22 yards for a touchdown — the extra point was blocked.
Missouri State was then forced to punt on its next five drives of the first half.
The game stayed 6-0 until midway through the third quarter, when an Earl fumble — on a hit from behind — proved to be damaging.
The Bears needed three plays to score, on a 3-yard run by quarterback Kierra Harris. After the extra point, Missouri State led 7-6 at the 6:28 mark.
On the ensuing USD drive, a bad snap to punter Bergner was blocked and returned 10 yards by Vernon Scott for a MSU touchdown.
The Coyotes then recovered a Bears’ fumble and capitalized on a Trevor Bouma 18-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The two-point conversion pass from Earl to Donovan was good, tying the game at 14-14.
Bergner then missed the 31-yard field goal attempt on the next drive, but thankfully for the Coyotes, Missouri State did nothing on its series.
The biggest play in that defensive series for USD was a penalty on Starr for a helmet-to-helmet hit on the quarterback, which led to the linebacker’s ejection. Starr called the hit unintentional, and USD officials say they will review the play with league officials to see if Starr will have to miss any additional time next week.
Bergner then came on to kick the game-winner with 1:24 remaining. After a MSU drive went four and out, the Coyotes — and their fans — were able to celebrate.
Despite the ongoing issues, Glenn pointed out.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do. We can’t play like that every week and expect to win,” he said. “We’re playing hard. If you play hard and now correct some of the mistakes we’re making, we’ll win some games.”
And so, the Coyotes will next prepare to win a second straight conference game, as Indiana State comes to the DakotaDome next Saturday.
Could there be a kind of snowball effect for USD?
“This team is filled with talent, filled with heart, and a desire to win. We’ll do whatever it takes,” Starr said.
“You’ve seen it in teams in the past, once a team gets on a roll, it’s easy to catch that vibe and keep rolling.”
You can follow Jeremy Hoeck on Twitter at twitter.com/jhoeck.
SOUTH DAKOTA 17, MISSOURI ST. 14
Missouri St. 0 0 14 0 — 14
South Dakota 6 0 0 11 — 17
SDak — Guziec 22 interception return (kick blocked), 8:10.
MoSt — K.Harris 3 run (Bonani kick), 6:28.
MoSt — Scott 10 blocked punt return (Bonani kick), 4:28.
SDak — Bouma 18 pass from Earl (Donovan pass from Earl), 14:55.
SDak — FG Bergner 41, 1:24.
A — 9,758.
First downs 10 17
Rushes-yards 36-105 34-120
Passing 72 159
Comp-Att-Int 7-22-2 22-35-1
Return Yards 56 22
Punts-Avg. 8-32.9 7-36.9
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 1-1
Penalties-Yards 7-51 10-89
Time of Possession 24:21 34:35
RUSHING — Missouri St., P.Johnson 6-38, Cooper-Falls 10-35, C.Miller 5-18, K.Harris 15-14. South Dakota, Bouma 12-59, Roberts 13-46, Vander Maten 2-21, Team 2-(minus 2), Earl 5-(minus 4).
PASSING — Missouri St., K.Harris 7-16-2-72, Glaser 0-6-0-0. South Dakota, Earl 22-35-1-159.
RECEIVING — Missouri St., Buford 4-45, Burton 2-13, Boatright 1-14. South Dakota, Bouma 6-56, Terry 5-14, Wilhelm 3-32, Meyer 3-31, Roberts 2-17, Donovan 1-11, Manning 1-2, Vander Maten 1-(minus 4).