It's not a stretch to say that the 2014 USD football season has not gone the way Joe Glenn and Coyote fans had envisioned. After a promising 2-2 start that included a win over then-#23 Northern Arizona and a close loss at #4 Montana, the losses (and injuries) quickly began to mount, and before November came around, any hope of a playoff shot or a first winning season in the Missouri Valley Football Conference was out of the picture.
Now on the wrong end of seven consecutive defeats, it would appear that South Dakota football has reverted back to its 2012 form - when they finished 1-10 in their first year in the MVFC - as opposed to last season's marked improvement to become a 4-8 club that could've easily won six or seven games, had things gone differently. Would that record be what it is if six key starters on offense - including the starting quarterback, both lead running backs, and three-fifths of the offensive line - hadn't missed a combined 18 games this year? Probably not, but in the end, speculation of "what if" does little to improve actual wins and losses.
And yet, in spite of the disappointments this season has offered up, the schedule makers have given the Yotes a glorious chance to erase much of the bitter taste of 2014 with their final game of the campaign, a road test against 15th-ranked archrival South Dakota State.
While some have claimed the rivalry has lost a bit of its punch since the series resumed in 2012 after an eight-year hiatus, that sentiment isn't shared by anyone wearing red, in large part to their inability to get one over on their I-29 neighbors to the north. Stemming back to the early 2000s, the Yotes have failed to beat the Jackrabbits in their last five attempts, including a close 27-12 defeat at the DakotaDome last season that swung on an 80-yard interception return for touchdown by State's Winston Wright in the closing minutes. Add in the hopeful nature of the Jacks' playoffs hopes and the one-game series advantage USD currently clings to (51-50-7 is the all-time mark), and Joe Glenn's charges have plenty of added motivation to notch a victory Saturday.
Clearly, getting up for this game won't be hard. Actually winning it, on the other hand, is another story.
Since losing back-to-back games to NDSU and Youngstown to drop their record to 5-4, State has won two straight lopsided contests, outscoring Indiana State and Western Illinois 91-41 to get firmly back into the FCS playoff conversation. A big reason for that uptick has been the play of quarterback Austin Sumner, who much like the Coyote's Kevin Earl looks to be back in form after returning from an early-season injury. Following a few shaky outings into his comeback, the senior from Brandon, SD, has thrown for 8 touchdowns and 664 yards in his last two games and appears to be fully recovered from a broken foot suffered in the Jacks' season opener against Missouri.
Aiding that recovery has been the emergence of redshirt freshman receiver Jake Wieneke, who leads the conference in receiving yards (1141) and touchdown catches (14) in his first season of college football. With the 6'5" Wieneke opposite another 6'5" all-conference receiver in Jason Schneider (679 yards, 5 TDs), the Coyotes' secondary will have a lot to think about on Saturday.
The return of Sumner and the playmaking of Wieneke and Schneider add another dimension to an offense that features one of the best backs in the nation in Zach "I Don't Need An Introduction" Zenner, who has racked up 17 touchdowns and averages 141 yards on the ground per contest. While USD has become accustomed to facing great runners this year, Zenner brings a more direct, north-south approach than Illinois State's Marshaun Coprich or Western Illinois' J.C. Baker, something the Yotes' defense needs to account for. (Granted, the shiftier Coprich and Baker ran for a combined 347 yards this season against USD, so perhaps a different style of runner isn't the worst thing.)
Stopping an offense that's averaging 45.5 points per game their last two times out is a tall task, but if the Coyotes can continue to create turnovers - they forced four fumbles and recovered three against ISU - that's at least a start. Add in a boost from an offense that's beginning to look more dangerous through the air and the return of kicker/punter Miles Bergner and running back Jordan Roberts, and the chances of a road upset might not seem so far-fetched.
While a win over South Dakota State wouldn't completely revise the narrative of the 2014 season, there's no denying it would provide the best possible note to finish on for Coyotes everywhere.
It's one last chance for glory in a campaign that's seen so little of it. Yotes fans can only hope their team makes the most of the opportunity...
For more on USD's matchup against SDSU, watch Jay Elsen and I in the latest "Coyote Corner Video Blog" below: