In some ways, South Dakota football has come out of nowhere to a 3-0 start this season, featuring an FBS win against Bowling Green and a dominating victory against No. 10 North Dakota. But then again, the Coyotes showed they were on the doorstep last season.
USD went 4-7 in 2016 and 3-5 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Nothing special, right? Except when you factor in five losses by a touchdown or less, including 28-21 losses to MVFC co-champions South Dakota State and North Dakota State in the last two weeks, the Coyotes weren’t too far off.
Now in head coach Bob Nielson’s second season at the helm, that next step is happening right now. And we’ll see further proof of it when USD opens conference play Sept. 30 at Western Illinois, Nielson’s previous team.
“That’s all we talked about during the offseason is going step by step, game by game,” USD junior defensive back Danny Rambo told HERO Sports. “Making sure we’re winning and playing well into the bye week so we’re comfortable coming into conference play. It’s helping us build, getting a 3-0 start. We’re thinking ‘wow, we really got something.’ And that’s just building our confidence more and more.”
Defeating a lower-level FBS team like Bowling Green was one thing. Dismantling UND, the defending Big Sky Conference champions, 45-7 on Sept. 16 was another. It opened the eyes of everyone in the FCS as the Coyotes were clearly the better team from the start, leading 31-0 at halftime and finishing with 575 yards of total offense to UND’s 257.
The Coyotes were ranked No. 23 at the time. So was it an upset taking down a Top 10 team?
“Not at all,” Rambo said. “We prepared that week and knew going in that it was going to be a battle. But we executed more and we came out and played and the results showed that.”
USD is now No. 14 in the Coaches Poll, easily its best rankings in the Division I era. Just three years ago, the Coyotes were 2-10 overall and 0-8 in the MVFC. Now, they aren’t afraid to talk about their goals. And that’s reaching the FCS playoffs for the first time in program history.
“We talk about that and it’s one of our goals,” Rambo said. “But our main goal is to win the conference and then we’d be able to get the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. That’s what we’re really looking forward to is winning the conference so we’d be able to host playoff games.”
So what’s been the difference to start this year? Defense.
Everyone knew USD’s offense was in good hands, engineered by dual-threat quarterback Chris Streveler. It was the defense that needed to improve.
The Coyotes allowed 34.5 points per game last season. A part of that was a 47-44 double-overtime loss at UND where the Fighting Hawks scored 17 fourth-quarter points. Through three games this year, USD is giving up just 13.7 points per game.
“With last year and all the talk of how teams were running on us and gaining a lot of rushing yards, we came into fall camp and we hammered down on stopping the run,” Rambo said. “Once we can stop the run it’ll help our passing defense. We had a lot of pressure on our defense because we know our offense is going to put up a lot of points.”
The UND win was the only home game so far for the Coyotes. But the team can already sense the excitement surrounding the team in Vermillion. The buzz continues to grow around campus and the town, Rambo said, but the team is trying not to feed into it knowing the toughest part of its schedule is beginning.
USD’s first two opponents are ranked and the Valley as a whole currently has seven teams in the Top 25. The confidence is high inside the locker room, though. And the progress shown just within the last year is a positive sign for things to come in Vermillion.
“We’re building a winning program,” Rambo said. “Everyone wants to win now. There’s no individuals. It's more of a team. That’s the difference, is the culture. A couple years ago we weren’t as close as we are now. This year we have that vibe that we ride together and do things together. That’s what makes the difference.”