A dominant defensive performance and the punishing running of Gabriel Watson lifted the University of Sioux Falls Football Team to a 26-7 season-closing Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference win over Wayne State College (3-8, 2-5 NSIC) on Senior Day at Bob Young Field on Saturday afternoon.
On a day when 15 USF seniors were honored in a pre-game ceremony, senior defensive tackle Steven McKee led USF's defense with eight tackles, two sacks and three tackles for loss in his final game in USF's purple and white. He and his USF defensive mates held WSC to 149 yards on 44 total plays. The Cougars allowed just 74 yards on 33 carries while registering four sacks, five tackles for loss with both a fumble recovery and an interception.
"This is really a pleasing way to end my career at USF," noted McKee of Yankton, S.D., who finished his career with 11.5 sacks. "We had a lot of fun today. Our whole team played with tremendous energy. It was great to see," he said.
With the victory, USF recorded their seventh win or more for the sixth time in seven years in the NSIC. USF also ran its series record to 7-0 over the Wildcats. USF clinched a winning season two weeks ago at Bob Young Field with a 34-7 win over Upper Iowa and now have recorded 25 straight years of winning football.
USF head coach Jon Anderson, whose team recorded the 69th win in 78 home games at Bob Young Field, was impressed with the effort of his team.
"They showed their mettle today with a strong effort in all phases of the game. I was pleased with how this team stayed together and honored the seniors with a solid win. These men continued to show their strength as a group and their belief in one another and this program," said Anderson, who is 16-7 in two years at USF.
Watson, a junior from Piedmont, Calif., entered the game as the leading rusher in NCAA DII. And, he had another big day today, although he fell just short of the NSIC rushing mark of 1,979 yards by Tyler Tonderum in 2013 and the 2,000 mark for the season.
Still, Watson had a school record 11th straight 100-yard rushing game as he totaled 33 carries for 149 yards and a TD. He finished the year with a school record 1,957 yards on 269 carries and 26 TDs. Watson, who averaged 7.3 yards per carry this year, finished with a school record 177.9 rushing yards per game and his 26 TDs rank second all-time (David Ruter, 1998, 29).
As a unit, USF, which had 182 yards rushing on 46 carries against WSC, finished the regular season leading the NSIC in rushing with 3,011 yards on 498 carries for 6.0 yards per rush. USF recorded 3,000 or more yards rushing as a team for just the second time in the DII era. USF's NSIC championship team of 2016 had 4,005 rushing yards. Also for the fifth time in six seasons, the Cougars surpassed 5,000 yards in total offense. With 372 yards against WSC, USF finished with 5,126 or 466.0 yards per game.
Against WSC, USF quarterback Caden Walters completed 18-of-26 passes for 190 yards with a TD throw to Ty Smith. As a result, Walters finished his first year at USF with a 155.75 efficiency ranking and a 65.2 percentage rate (146-224-7 int.) while throwing for 2,033 yards and 14 TDs.
Walters's top target against WSC was Ty Smith, who had five catches for 81 yards and a TD. Senior wide receiver A.J. Garrow had four catches for 39 yards and Jermaine Broadnax added four catches for 25 yards.
Also for USF, Parker Gregston had his fourth interception of the season and returned a punt 56 yards for a touchdown. He registered USF's 41st defensive or special teams touchdown of the DII era. For Gregston, it was his first-ever (college or high school) punt return for a TD.
"It was really fun getting that done today," said Gregston, who took over punt return duties after Nate Johnson was injured three weeks ago. "I had some really outstanding blocks and found a seam," he said.
Game Breakdown –
On a cold and windy day, the Cougars fought off an early blocked punt to take the first lead of the game. After WSC blocked a Thomas Chapin punt and took possession inside USF's 20-yard line, the Cougars stiffened on defense and forced a field goal which was missed. On USF's third possession of the first quarter, USF put together a four-play, 57-yard scoring drive to go up 6-0 on Watson's 33-yard touchdown run.
The defenses controlled action until WSC put together a game-long 95-yard scoring drive to take the lead. After Nate Rogers caught a 42-yard pass down the left sideline, the Wildcats rushing attack had their one surge for the game. Maliki Wilson, who finished with 15 carries for 59 yards, had 42 yards on five carries to put the ball inside USF's 20-yard line. On a third and nine play, freshman quarterback Brady Brandsfield connected with Willie Walton on a 13-yard touchdown pass. With Blake Kaiser's conversion, the Wildcats took a 7-6 lead over USF with seven minutes left in the second quarter.
USF's go-ahead scored was set up by the defense which held WSC to a three-and-out and forced a punt into the teeth of a heavy 35-mile per hour wind. When Gregston fair caught the ball at WSC's 30-yard line, USF was set up in scoring territory. On the first play of the possession, Walters connected with Smith on a 30-yard pitch-and-catch for a 14-7 lead with 1:49 to play in the first half.
After Gregston intercepted his fourth pass of the season, the Cougars had the ball deep in WSC territory early in the third quarter. However, WSC came up with a goal line stand and held USF out of the end zone. After turning the ball over on downs, USF's defense asserted itself and didn't give up any ground. On fourth and 11 from inside their own one-yard line, WSC elected to step out of the end zone and take a safety as USF took a 16-7 lead with 8:48 to play in the third quarter.
On the ensuing free kick, Gregston stepped up and sidestepped Wildcat defenders on his way to a 56-yard punt return for a touchdown. It was USF's first punt return for a score since Jason Towns returned one 66 yards for a score against Minnesota Crookston on Sept. 23, 2017. The special teams touchdown gave the Cougars a 23-7 lead.
Later in the third quarter, Mason Laramie closed out the scoring with a 31-yard field goal with 44 seconds to go. With that final score, USF, which lost four games by a combined 18 points, finished the campaign with seven wins and victories in 5-of-6 home games.
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