VERMILLION, S.D. (USD) — Coyote fans can finally exhale.
South Dakota’s defense stopped three South Dakota State drives in the fourth quarter to preserve a three-point lead and upended the Jackrabbits 24-21 on Senior Day inside the DakotaDome.
It was the first win for South Dakota in the series since 2000, ending a 10-game slide. The Coyotes finish 2019 with a 5-7 record and equaled their best finish inside the Valley at 4-4. USD also extended its streak of seasons with at least one top-25 victory to seven.
“The players said it best,” said USD head coach Bob Nielson. “The defense has taken some shots through the course of the year, but it was great to see defense put a stamp on the win.
“I’m really proud of them. It’s a good win. It puts a finishing touch on the year that I think we can build on in the future, and now the next step is to build our program to a point where a win like that isn’t an upset.”
The loss sends SDSU to 8-4 overall and could cost the Jacks a national seed in the 24-team FCS playoff field to be announced Sunday. Turnovers proved to be the difference as SDSU lost four fumbles including one inside the USD 25 with less than seven minutes to go. The final fumble came on a lateral play at the end of the game.
Credit USD sophomore safety Isaiah McDaniels for forcing two of those fumbles, and a Coyote special teams unit led by punter Brady Schutt and long snapper Dalton Godfrey. McDaniels, who started in place of injured safety Phillip Powell, registered a career-high nine tackles and delivered two big hits that jarred the football loose. Godfrey forced a fumble at the SDSU 20 and downed two punts inside the 5 all in the first half.
“Coach told us all week that we had to execute our game plan, but most importantly, we had to tackle hard and be aggressive,” said McDaniels. “Eleven people to the ball all out, and that’s what we did and that’s how we created a lot of turnovers.”
South Dakota took a 10-7 lead into the break after quarterback Austin Simmons threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Brett Samson on a 4th-and-1 play with less than 20 seconds to go in the second quarter. The two hooked up again for a 21-yard touchdown with 2:26 to go in the third quarter that gave the Coyotes their largest lead at 24-14.
Samson caught six passes for 71 yards and caught two touchdowns in a game for the first time.
“I expected them to come out and make plays in the second half,” said Simmons, who passed for 252 yards, ran for 47, and accounted for all three Coyote touchdowns. “When they scored, we had to respond. You can’t back down, you can’t start puckering up, you just got to go out there and hit them right in the mouth again.
“I felt like we did that a couple of times which ended up being enough to win and that’s all that really matters.”
SDSU countered with an 8-play, 79-yard touchdown drive capped by a Keaton Heide 8-yard pass to fullback Luke Sellers early in the fourth quarter. Heide completed 26 of 35 passes for 308 yards and two scores.
South Dakota’s offense mustered 360 yards on the Jacks’ eighth-ranked unit through three quarters, but netted just nine yards on 10 plays in the fourth quarter.
That put the onus on the Coyote defense and it proved up to the task. McDaniels drilled Heide on a designed run at the USD 24, popping the ball out and having teammate Jake Richardson recover for a stop.
Following a 3-and-out, SDSU was stopped on a 4th-and-11 play from its own 41 when cornerback Cori Fant Jr. broke up a pass intended for Jaxon Janke. That came with 2:14 left. SDSU got one last chance from its own 6 with one timeout and 1:02 showing. The Jacks climbed to their 45 with 17 seconds left. But a lateral play with their receivers put the ball on the turf and USD cornerback Mark Collins Jr. recovered the loose ball to secure the win.
“This is my fourth game I’ve played them,” said USD senior defensive end Darin Greenfield. “Like I said at the beginning of the week, every loss just kind of added up on top of each other. I could tell when we started practice that the seniors were really leading the charge with the effort and the charisma and the practice, and all week we could just tell that this was the year that we did it.
“I’m done playing football here, but I’m the happiest I’ve ever been right now. It’s a weird feeling, but it’s amazing.”
· This was the 114th game in a series that dates back to 1889.
· SDSU leads the all-time series 55-52-7.
· Austin Simmons passed Wesley Beschorner for second place on USD’s all-time passing list with 6,487 yards.
· Simmons also passed Beschorner for third place on USD’s career total offense leaders with 7,531.
· USD junior linebacker Jack Cochrane led USD with 11 tackles, giving him 105 on the season. He is the third Coyote to reach 100 tackles in a year since 2000.
· Brady Schutt averaged 46.1 yards on seven punts. He pinned four of the seven inside the 20-yard line.
· USD wide receiver Kody Case returned to the lineup and caught five passes for 111 yards.