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Inside the Missouri Valley: South Dakota Showdown nears must-win territory for Coyotes

SDSU and USD will face off Saturday, Oct. 8 in Brookings, where the Coyotes look to get their offense in gear

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South Dakota's Travis Theis carries the ball during a Missouri Valley Football Conference game against North Dakota State on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, at the DakotaDome, in Vermillion.
Landon Dierks / Mitchell Republic
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VERMILLION — While traditionally reserved for a Saturday in mid-November (at least in the Division I era), this weekend, the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State will meet on the gridiron for their annual fixture in the South Dakota Showdown Series.

Though this season’s matchup takes place much earlier than normal, meaning the postseason is still nearly two full months away, USD’s playoff prospects will either take a key step forward or suffer a damaging setback depending on Saturday’s outcome.

A well-documented difficult early schedule has pitted the Coyotes against FBS Kansas State (now ranked No. 20 in the most recent AP poll) in addition to the top-three teams in the FCS rankings — Montana, North Dakota State and (soon) South Dakota State — in the first five games of their season. The first four games of that gauntlet have left USD at 1-3 ahead of the meeting with SDSU and in an unenviable position with the bulk of Missouri Valley Football Conference play remaining.

While the results to date were largely predictable given the strength of the opposition, three losses before October borders on the worst-case scenario for a Coyotes team that started the season receiving the most votes of any program outside the Stats Perform Top 25.

“We were a better football team [against NDSU] than we were against Montana, I think, without question,” USD head coach Bob Nielson offered after the loss to NDSU, addressing how his team has handled the difficult schedule. “I think we were better in all three phases of the game, and we just have to keep getting better. We’ll be a better football team after the bye week and a better football team up in Brookings.”

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Now USD, which clung to two votes (the fewest of any vote-receiving team) following an idle Oct. 1, is under significant pressure to get its season back on track against an SDSU program that’s won four straight games and is ranked No. 2 in the FCS.

Despite SDSU’s now well-established status as one of the elite programs in the FCS, the Coyotes enter Saturday the winners of back-to-back memorable games against the Jackrabbits. Who can forget USD’s 2019 win that snapped a 10-game losing skid (the longest in the rivalry’s history) or the 2021 Hail Mary from Carson Camp to Jeremiah Webb on the final play of regulation?

But his year’s game — the 116th installment of the rivalry dating back to 1889 — returns to Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings for the first time since November 17, 2018 (the 2020/spring 2021 game was scheduled to be played in Brookings, but the contest was canceled due to COVID-19). As such, the Coyotes will have to combat the Jackrabbits away from the DakotaDome, which hasn’t gone particularly well since the move to Division I.

Since 2012, USD and SDSU have met nine times. The Jackrabbits won the first seven of those, with four taking place in Brookings. Only one of those — a 28-21 final in 2016 — was decided by fewer than 22 points. By contrast, four of the five games played at the DakotaDome (including both USD wins) were decided by one score, including each of the past three by a field-goal margin.

Through the first four games, the Coyotes have scored 62 points, 38 of which came in their only win to date against Cal Poly. A 15.5 point-per-game average ranks third-worst in the MVFC ahead of only Western Illinois and Indiana State, which are a combined 1-8. It is USD's slowest start scoring points since 2013, when USD scored only 50 points over the first four games in a 1-3 start under coach Joe Glenn. Factoring in USD’s sluggish start on the offensive side of the ball, it appears that several important pieces must come together in short order for the Coyotes to prove their mettle.

To say Saturday is absolutely a must-win game for USD would be inaccurate. If the Coyotes were to lose to the Jackrabbits but respond by winning their final six MVFC games, a playoff bid at 7-4 would be a virtual lock. Even going 5-1 over that stretch would keep USD in the conversation, as there’s an established precedent of 6-5 MVFC teams with an FBS loss sneaking into the 24-team playoff field (look no further than Northern Iowa in 2021), especially with a strong schedule like USD would have.

But suffice it to say Bob Nielson’s crew doesn’t want to back itself into that precarious situation where perfection (or close to it) would become a necessity.

Last week’s scores

Saturday, Oct. 1
South Dakota State 34, Western Illinois 10
North Dakota State 27, Youngstown State 14
North Dakota 48, Missouri State 31
Northern Iowa 20, Indiana State 14
Southern Illinois 19, Illinois State 14

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Atop the valley

One top performance from the conference for the week:

South Dakota State running back Isaiah Davis rushed the ball on all six plays of the Jackrabbits’ touchdown drive en route to his 27-carry, 199-yard performance. Davis found the endzone twice and caught two passes for 16 yards in SDSU’s 34-10 win over Western Illinois.

Check this out

One top play from this past week’s games:

NDSU used not one, not two, not three but four fullbacks to power through the defense and score a touchdown on its way to a 27-14 win over Youngstown State.

This week’s games

Rankings are from the Stats Perform FCS Top 25.

Saturday, Oct. 7

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No. 1 North Dakota State at Indiana State, 12 p.m.
South Dakota at No. 2 South Dakota State, 2 p.m.
No. 17 Southern Illinois at No. 20 Missouri State, 2 p.m.
Illinois State at Northern Iowa, 4 p.m.
No. 22 North Dakota at Youngstown State, 5 p.m.

The Valley game of the week

One Missouri Valley game we’re eager to watch this week:

Outside of the USD-SDSU matchup, there are a plethora of intriguing contests on the MVFC slate this weekend. However, Southern Illinois and Missouri State may be the most intriguing of them all.

The Bears are sliding down the rankings after being as high as No. 5 following losses to Arkansas, South Dakota State and North Dakota. The Salukis are trending the other direction, with wins over Northwestern, North Dakota and Illinois State.

Missouri State will look to stop its skid and make its way back up the rankings on its home turf, while Southern Illinois looks to stay hot.

The Valley in the NFL

  • Indiana State’s Robert Tonyan and NDSU’s Christian Watson provided a huge spark to the Packers’ offense on Sunday. Watson scored the first touchdown of his NFL career on a 15-yard touchdown run and added a catch for 8 yards. Tonyan caught both of his targets for 22 yards and a score in Green Bay’s overtime win over the Patriots.
  • Former NDSU quarterback Carson Wentz went 25-for-42 for 170 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions for the Commanders in a 25-10 loss to the Cowboys on Sunday. Wentz is tied for sixth in the league with eight touchdown passes but is also tied for the most interceptions thrown with five.
  • Kansas City’s Jack Cochrane made his presence known early in a Sunday Night Football matchup against the Buccaneers. The former USD Coyote was in on the tackle on the opening kickoff that the Buccaneers fumbled and the Chiefs recovered. It was Coachrane’s first tackle of the season.
Dierks covers prep and collegiate athletics across the Mitchell Republic's coverage region area, focusing on Mitchell High School football and boys basketball and area high school football, volleyball and basketball, as well as Dakota Wesleyan women's basketball. He was also the lead on the Mitchell Republic Gridiron Spotlight, producing video and providing live play-by-play for the traveling weekly prep football broadcast during its first season in the fall of 2021. Dierks is a Mitchell native who graduated from South Dakota State University with his bachelor's degree in journalism in May 2020. He joined the Mitchell Republic sports staff in August 2021. He can be reached at ldierks@mitchellrepublic.com and found on Twitter at @LDierksy.
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