After their 44-29 defeat to Western Illinois last week, South Dakota has the unenviable task of closing out the home portion of their schedule with another ranked opponent opposite them, the ninth they've faced this season. In this, the Year of the Missouri Valley, that difficult schedule was more or less expected. What wasn't expected, however, was that this week's opposition might end up being the best team the Yotes have seen at the DakotaDome this year, and that's a list that includes (ducking the lightning bolt) North Dakota State.
Enter 8-1 Illinois State. The Redbirds are ranked #7 nationally but are #3 according to College Sporting News' Gridiron Power Index, with their only loss coming two weeks ago to a white-hot Northern Iowa, 42-28, although a Panther interception return for a touchdown in the game's last minute made the game seem more decisive than it really was.
ISU has the league's best scoring offense (37.4ppg) and second-best scoring D (17ppg), plus they feature the league's leading rusher and scorer in Marshaun Coprich (17 TDs, 144.7ypg), a highlight-reel quarterback in former Indiana Hoosier Tre Roberson (22 TDs, 2162 total yards), and multiple big-play (and just plain big) receiving threats in Cameron Meredith (6'3"), Lechein Neblett (6'0") and James O'Shaughnessy (6'4"). They also have an emerging force in the trenches on defense in Teddy Corwin (5.5 sacks, 10 TFLs) and a shut-down corner in four-year starter Mike Banks, and those are just two of a number of contributors on the defensive side of the football.
Clearly, this is a very different team from the one that finished 4-4 in conference and 5-6 overall in 2013, and clearly, the Yotes will have their hands full.
Unfortunately, South Dakota might not have all hands on deck, as the status of running backs Jasper Sanders (turf toe) and Jordan Roberts (wrist injury) might not be clear until just prior to game time. For a Coyote team that's desperate for a win, they have to hope both are available, although redshirt freshman Khorey Kilgore (4 carries, 46 yards) played well in relief against Western and looks to be capable to handle a bigger role in the offense if needed.
Despite the injuries and the lack of a playoff berth to play for, however, it's still going to be a special day in Vermillion on Saturday, as the Yotes will recognize nine seniors who will feature for the last time in the DakotaDome. Even though wins have been tough to come by for this class, the contributions of Sanders, Andrew Schofield, Josh Vander Maten, Matt Huffer, Kyle Guziec, Steve Tellefsen, Auston Johnson, Adam Praska and Tom Manning shouldn't be disregarded. The transition to this level and into this conference hasn't been an easy one, but this group has played a big part in that shift, and they've handled the frustrations that have gone with it with class and spirit.
No matter the outcome on Saturday, Coyote Nation still has much to be proud of. And maybe - just maybe - they'll have an upset to celebrate as well.
For more insight on South Dakota football and their matchup with Illinois State, watch the latest Coyote Corner Video Blog with Jay Elsen and I below: