Since Utah Valley State and South Dakota went their separate ways after the 2010-11 season, both have continued to deal with the challenges of attaining the targeted “solid low/mid-major status”. The Wolverines stayed in the Great West in 2011-12 and 12-13 but are now preparing for their first season in the Western Athletic Conference.
The WAC includes nine schools, with former Great West programs Chicago State, Seattle and Texas Pan-American, as well as Kansas City from the Summit all recent USD conference foes.
The Wolverines went 20-13 with a 9-1 record in the Great West two years ago while the Coyotes were struggling through their first season in the Summit. Last year UVU was 14-18 with a 3-5 mark in an even smaller Great West.
The Wolverines are 2-4 now with wins over IUPUI and North Carolina A&T at home followed by four consecutive road losses. UVU got crushed by Oklahoma State (93-40) but hung in there against Oregon (69-54) and lost close ones to Pepperdine (58-53) and Tennessee Tech (74-71).
They play their top six players most of the time with all of them averaging 7.7 points a game or more. Freshman Zach Nelson, a 6-7 forward, averages 11.2 points. Hayes Garrity is a 6-1 sophomore guard averaging 10.8 points and Mitch Bruneel is a 6-5 junior averaging 10.2 points.
Similar to the Coyotes, the Wolverines have struggled with perimeter shooting so far, hitting just. .279 on 3-pointers. USD is at .311, though junior Brandon Bos has hit an impressive 9 of 18. USD is hitting .405 from the field overall with opponents shooting .396.
There’s obviously a lot of sorting out left to be done for the Coyotes, who appear to have a lot of shooters, though they’ve not unleashed themselves properly yet against a Division I opponent yet.
The coaching staff came into the season assuming they would be strong offensively and as a result, much of the time spent in the 75 or 80 preseason practices (that’s an exaggeration but not a spectacular one) focused on defense and rebounding. After four Division I games, it was the offense that looked rough, though. The Coyotes got a chance to spread their wings a bit against Graceland, but they’ll know more after 40 minutes against UVU.
The announcement of Montana’s future appearances on the Coyote football schedule arrived during January of 2012 when then-athletic director David Sayler was in the process of hammering out arrangements for future non-conference games.
Montana had its scheduled contest with Appalachian State that year moved to accommodate television, opening up a spot that motivated Sayler to step in and figure out a deal where USD would play the Grizzlies three times. The first of these would be a cash game where Montana would pay USD $200,000 to show up in 2012. The second of which, which takes place on Saturday at the DakotaDome, would be part of a home-and-home series where the Coyotes would travel to Montana in 2014.
It seems sensible enough, but the unconventional timing of Montana’s appearance – in November right before season-ending contests with rivalry heavyweights SDSU and NDSU – would certainly make you wonder whether the former AD had the football program’s best interests at heart.
Coupled with moving last year’s game with NDSU to Howard Wood Field, there is no question that Sayler’s scheduling made things more difficult for a team that has been in the process of climbing out of a hole created by inclusion in the Missouri Valley Conference.
That’s not to say the former athletic director was without justification for the decisions he made. I thought playing at Howard Wood was a good idea for a program looking for a higher profile in Sioux Falls and a cozier relationship with the money folks in the state’s largest city. I also believe USD could have played that game at the DakotaDome or on the moon and the end result would have closely resembled the pummeling the Coyotes suffered at Howard Wood.
Joe Glenn was asked by some out-of-state media about playing home games off campus earlier this year during the weekly Missouri Valley teleconference. Paraphrasing, he said it was a bad idea and it wouldn’t happen again if he has anything to say about it.
Obviously, the circumstances with the agreement with Montana are completely different here except for the fact that the short-term competitive interests of the team were secondary to other factors of debatable importance.
Getting top-level programs to visit the DakotaDome? A worthy goal, no question, and one that Sayler cited when the announcement of the arrangement with Montana came out. But at what competitive cost? Coaches will project toughness in these situations and Glenn didn’t disappoint on Tuesday on that count, saying it’s not a coach’s place to consider those decisions.
“Don’t worry about the mules going blind,” he could have said (but didn’t). “Just load the wagon.”
Any squawking about things being too difficult would seem like whining to some, but there isn’t a school in the nation that does not try to weave what I would call “reasonable challenges” into a non-conference schedule. Montana’s appearance is conspicuous both because of the perennial quality of that program and cumbersome timing of the visit, tucked as it is into a month that already includes Youngstown State, SDSU and NDSU.
Had the Coyotes won last week, they’d still be harboring realistic playoff hopes right now. The idea of then having to play a late-season game with Montana would have seemed a cruel joke perpetuated on the program by an athletic director who left town.
As it is, it remains what was in 2011 an avoidable inconvenience. Somehow, some way, the powers that be could have respected the fact that with UC Davis, Northern Arizona and Kansas on the 2013 schedule, they were asking enough of the football team. Making the Coyotes play Montana in November a week before the SDSU game was piling on.
Auston Johnson, the Coyotes’ 5-11, 225-pound middle linebacker, has quietly been having a very good season at USD. With an All-American in Tyler Starr on the edge on one side and an emerging all-conference level player in Keyen Lage on the other side, his contributions have been lower-key.
In talking to Joe Glenn this week briefly about Johnson, he said “You know what he’s got? He’s got this.” Glenn then hit his open hand with his fist. That’s football coach sign language for guys who muster up velocity when they’re bringing people down.
Johnson, a junior college transfer from El Camino College in California who was recruited by several major-college programs, was counted on to shore-up the depleted crew at inside linebacker. He’s since delivered on that.
Most football fans wouldn’t know his father, Alondra Johnson, but he was a longtime pro player in the CFL with a long list of accomplishments, including a place in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
I had a chance this week to ask Auston a few questions about how the season has gone for him.
Q. How has it gone adjusting to football at this level?
A. I’d say it’s been an easy transition because I saw where this team was coming from based on how my last season had gone in junior college. I knew this team was going to be very, very hungry going into the next season. They weren’t going to let happen again what had happened the year before.
Q. How have you become a better football player since the first game?
A. It’s all been about understanding the defense and getting more comfortable with it week by week. I got more of a feel for what I was doing. I’m able to read my keys easier and make plays. I’m getting a full grasp of what is going on.
Q. Your father, Alondra, was a pro athlete for a long time. Does that give you a little different perspective about the game?
A. A lot of the things I do on the field are things my dad taught me. This is just my third year of playing linebacker so he pretty much taught me the position. I’ve benefited a lot from the things I’ve learned from him.
Q. What kinds of things do you two talk about now?
A. Before games, he gives me advice, gives me hints about what teams are doing. He’ll tell me to look for this or that, so I take in every single thing he says. The main thing he tells me is to never get down. If you miss an assignment, stay calm, because you have more plays. There is always going to be another play – keep your emotions right.
Media Day this year gave Joey James his first chance to stand up and tell everyone what the Coyotes are going to be like this year. Because I’ve spent some time with the coaching staff talking about this year’s team, there was nothing earthshaking to report. It was nevertheless entertaining to see how the new (interim) coach handled the crowd.
He razzed several of his players about this or that, sometimes paying them compliments while at the same time trying to embarrass them a little bit. All in good fun, but you definitely picked up that he understands he’s getting his shot and he’s going to do it his way.
The main theme – and it applied to both teams – is the number of youngsters that will be on the rosters. What makes it a little more unusual is that this relative inexperience coincides with a level of expectation that hasn’t been there up to this point.
We’ll be previewing the season for both teams in the coming days, but to review, the men finished 5-11 in the conference last year for seventh place, the exact same spot they’re picked to finish this year in a preseason poll. They return five players with starting experience, though only two of those players – 6-9 senior Trevor Gruis and 6-1 junior Brandon Bos – are locks to be opening-night starters.
Nine players on the roster are freshmen or sophomores and eight have never worn a USD uniform. The women, meanwhile, have 11 players on the roster who are freshmen or sophomores and also have eight players who have never worn a USD uniform.
That’s a lot of new people and I think it’s why neither coach was ready to stomp their feet and talk about how they were going to beat everybody up this year. I sensed a quiet confidence from both James and Williams in that they have teams with the potential to compare favorably talent-wise with recent predecessors, but there is too much going on at practice at this point in terms of sorting out roles and establishing offenses and defenses to be in a position to do much boasting.
The format with these deals is to give a general impression of the themes for the season, followed by an assessment of the schedule and the conference. Then comes a brief summary of the strengths of the players on the roster. This is the part I find most interesting because you get a feel for who has made strides over the course of the offseason.
On that count, James had high praise for several. No. 1 on the list on this day was Eric Robertson. The 6-8 forward hit 9 of 21 3-pointers in Summit play last year. That’s not a large sampling, but you have to figure if he can handle things well enough underneath defensively, he’ll present matchup issues with that kind of range and accuracy as a sophomore.
“He’s had the best fall of all of our guys,” James said. “He’s brought it every day, he’s playing his tail off, he’s getting good shots, he’s hustling. I’m really excited about him.”
Then came a crack about Robertson’s mustache that went like this: “I’m not sure what’s going on with that mustache. I think it’s part of a Halloween costume. We’ll get that taken care of before practice today.”
James has always been pretty good with the needle in less formal settings. Now it looks like this personality trait is going to get a little more exposure.
Williams, in her second season at USD, told a story about stepping off the side of the practice court and falling down while scolding a player at practice the day before. She admitted to being a little upset about that and even more upset when the target of wrath was obviously stifling a laugh while the verbal barrage continued.
“I’m apologizing to her today for not being in a humorous mood yesterday,” Williams said. “It did prove to me a good little lesson, which is that it doesn’t pay to come to practice in a bad mood. I’ve been preaching it and preaching it for a while.”
We’ll knock off some Q and A with some of the athletes from media day in the coming days here on the blog. In addition, previews will be coming up soon.
The USD football team went into Normal, Ill., two years ago ranked No. 14 in the nation with a win over then top-ranked Eastern Washington at the DakotaDome being the main reason for the still-transitioning program jumping into the forefront of FCS football. The Coyotes had lost to Wisconsin and Air Force, but defeated Southern Utah, in addition to lower-level programs Northwest Oklahoma State and Lindenwood.
Things did not go well that day, with the Redbirds’ defense dominating. It was Ed Meierkort’s last season and very close to being an excellent season. Road losses at Cal Poly (27-24) and North Dakota (38-37) would follow, however, with horrendous end-of-game circumstances. All of which made it more acceptable for then-AD David Sayler — who has since become something of an expert in sending head football coaches off into the great beyond — to fire Meierkort. The Illinois State game was the only FCS loss that year in which the Coyotes were dominated.
It was the first foray into Missouri Valley play and to some extent foretold the future. USD would go on to lose nine more consecutive games to MVFC opponents before ending the streak this year with the home win over Missouri State.
USD returns to Hancock Stadium today with the conditions much different than they were in 2011. USD is not a ranked team, nor is Illinois State, which went to the DakotaDome in 2012 ranked No. 12 and nearly lost to a Coyote team that would not win a conference game.
Key factors for USD include the standards – keep Trevor Bouma rolling at running back, avoid turnovers, and stop the Redbirds’ ground game – but also include things that are specific to the Coyotes’ situation.
I’m interested to see how Kevin Earl will play after coming off a huge game in the win over UNI. My feeling is that defenses really didn’t go crazy in preparing for his presence in his first three starts because his stats in his first two starts were nothing to start barking about. UNI was different, of course, which probably merits more attention from Illinois State’s defensive coaches and players. The Redbirds will go into today’s game thinking that Earl has the potential to really hurt them. I do not think that was the case in the team’s wins over Missouri State, Indiana State or UNI.
The other deal has to do with penalties. The Coyotes were able to quiet the before-and-after stuff that has been so much a part of the operation for the last two seasons. USD had six penalties in the first half against the Panthers, but only one in the second half. It’s really the first time all season where they were able to hold it together on this issue for any extended length of time in a close game.
Were those 30 minutes a fluke, or part of a new way of doing things? It’s a question for the Coyotes to answer today about the penalty problem. It’s also a question to answer about the team. A win over Illinois State vaults USD into the “player” status regarding speculative if-the-season-ended-today talk about playoffs. Because they will have a month of games remaining against ranked opponents, serious discussion is meaningless in late October, but it’s what fans do, and good for them.
USD would be 4-1 and head into the Youngstown State contest at the Dome with a competitive context surrounding the game that would go beyond just trying to give fans evidence of progress for the program.
Using the compare-the-scores method, Illinois State is going to be pretty tough today. The Redbirds crushed an Indiana State team last week at home that the Coyotes beat by three points at the Dome two weeks ago.
Both teams played Missouri State, too, though, with USD winning 17-14 and the Redbirds losing 37-10. So there is that. It would be easy to look at what Illinois State has done so far and say they’re a good team at home and a bad team on the road, but that would be at least a little misleading because to this point the teams the Redbirds have played on the road, which all were one-sided losses, are just plain better than the teams they’ve played at home. Ball State, Eastern Illinois, Youngstown State and Missouri State are much better than Abilene Christian, Western Illinois and Indiana State.
My guess is that if the Coyote defense can make life difficult for Illinois State QB Blake Winkler they have a pretty good shot at winning the game. Winkler, a redshirt freshman who did not begin the season as the starting quarterback, appears to be an emerging star who would have been an FBS-level recruit if he wasn’t 5-11. If he continues on with his progress today, USD is going to have to score a lot of points.
Against a team that will not be in the mood to mess around too much, the Coyote football team will try to end an 18-game road losing streak this week in Cedar Falls. Given that USD has been installed as a three or four touchdown underdog against the Panthers, I do not think a loss in this game would have the same emotional effect as losing at Western Illinois, a place where a well-played game would have stopped the streak.
I thought if they’d kept the wheels on against Western Illinois, they’d have won that game. The difference this week is that a well-played game would not be a lock for a win. The Panthers have lost the last two games, but it’s still a top-ten program.
I was on the radio with John Thayer on Friday morning and he asked me if the potential was there for this team to go over to the other side – be a team that could win a few more conference games this season, in other words, and approach a point where playoff contingencies could be talked about in public without any snickering.
My response went something like this: To bridge that gap, USD is going to have to clean things up. Get through a few games in a row without the ridiculous stuff getting in the way all the time. If the Coyotes seriously want to consider closing out an incredibly difficult six-game second-half of the season with a few more wins, there will be a point when an opposing coach preparing to play USD says something like “Well, they stopped beating themselves and when they did that, they became a pretty good football team.”
Yes, the Coyotes have handled fourth-quarter adversity very well the last two games, but there is a self-inflicted element to that adversity that would have to disappear over the next six weeks for USD to start surprising FCS teams. Increasing team strength, depth and attitude has been a gradual process for the program and one where progress has obviously been made. Unfortunately, shoring up the elimination of basic mistakes – something that would appear to be a far simpler and quicker fix than the other project – is proving to be a stubborn foe.
Numbers on penalties, etc.
The Coyote football team has 40 penalties for 344 yards this year. Their opponents have 38 for 319 yards. Not a huge disparity, but for a team trying make the turnaround, those flags have been getting in the way of things like two-score leads, if not victories.
It puts USD in 75th place on the list of the least penalized teams in the nation based on yardage lost. For sheer quantity, the Coyotes’ 40 puts them in 73rd place. Jacksonville takes the top (or in this case, bottom) spot in both categories, tooling along at an 11.17 penalties-a-game clip for 594 yards. If it seems like the Coyotes are getting a lot of flags, imagine if they’d been penalized an additional 27 times. Then you’d be in Jacksonville territory. What’s Jacksonville’s home stadium’s nickname? How about The Laundromat? Just an idea.
Other stats of note:
With two blocked punts, the Coyotes share last place in the FCS with nine other teams. With four blocked kicks, they share 113th place with eight other teams. Bethune-Cookman is at the very bottom with six blocked kicks.
More than a year after a crippling accident, the family of USD assistant football coach still waits for signs of recovery
"… Maybe God’s plan includes how Mike’s accident has impacted us all. Are we better as a result? Are we more loving and more concerned about others? Do we take each other less for granted? Do we pray more for each other? Are we better parents, spouses, children? I don’t know this, but this is what I pray for; that this tragic situation has a positive meaning. …"
- From Joni Freidel’s journal, June 18, 2007, a year after her husband was seriously injured in a ranch accident.
BY MICK GARRY
VERMILLION - A ranching accident in summer 2006 didn’t kill Mike Freidel, though it easily could have. His halting progress in the aftermath could have killed his family’s hope, but that hasn’t happened either.
Somewhere in between - between the dream of a normal life and the firm resolve to carry on regardless - the wife and five children of this well-known assistant college football coach keep themselves going forward together.
"We wish we could talk to him," said Joni Freidel, Mike Freidel's wife of 27 years. “The physical disabilities - they're a big deal - but they're not the primary concern. If he's in a wheelchair, we don't care. We miss being able to share the good times with him. We miss being able to talk to him.”
Joni, daughter Kelsey (22), twin sons Jerrod and Jackson (18), son Kylen (16), and daughter Hailey (10), haven’t been able to have a conversation with Freidel since June 19, 2006, the day a trailer tire he was repairing at a Wyoming ranch exploded, sending the outside half of a steel wheel rocketing off his head and torso.
He went into a coma and, more than a year later, really hasn’t left it. Though he often gives family and Sanford Vermillion Medical Center staff indication he is aware of his surroundings - caretakers had to turn off a recent Notre Dame game because the longtime Fighting Irish fan appeared to be agitated by it - he remains seriously handicapped.
He can’t move around without assistance, has lost his vision in one eye, and attempts at communication are most often reduced to technology-aided yes/no responses. He lives at the medical center with short trips outside the hospital accompanied by family and staff. He is expected to move to the adjoining Sanford Care Center when the staff there has been adequately trained to administer to his special needs.
"We don’t know, but we’re assuming he understands what is going on," said Joni, a policy analyst in enrollment services at USD. "It’s just that his body is not allowing him to reply."
One of a kind
Before the accident, the 51-year-old Freidel was never afraid to tell people what he thought.
In 16 years as a defensive coordinator at Augustana and five more at USD, this former Armour and Dakota State University football star built a reputation for being an old-school tough guy who nevertheless fostered a fierce loyalty among his players.
"When I ran into him someplace off the football field, I felt like I could talk to him for hours," USD linebacker Blake Hojer said. "We had a lot in common - he was always asking me how the farm work was coming. When it came to football, though, he was a - what’s the right word, I mean something you can put in a newspaper? Anyway, he was tough. He pushed us. He knew what our abilities were, and he made sure we got there."
Off the field, things were different. He was an excellent guitarist who had played lead guitar in several bands and loved the ranching life that he returned to for a week every summer in Wyoming.
"I think we would all say he put on that football coach cover when he left the house," Jerrod said. "Around us, he could be kind of a goofball."
That irreverent sense of humor, one the sweating linebackers at USD and Augustana on hot August afternoons didn’t see too often, was a staple in the Freidel home.
There was the occasion where he became both amused and confused by his kids’ and players’ slang usage of the term word. He asked questions for several weeks about what it meant and when to use it.
At the dinner table one night, he told his family that he’d figured it out. “It means the truth,” he announced, and thereafter began using it liberally himself.
On Thursdays before games, Mike always had gone over game films with his boys, telling them how they could do things better. It was a teacher-pupil deal. No brow-beating, just information. Last fall, however, that tradition was gone.
"If there’s anything I could have back right now, that would be it," Jackson said. "I just wish we could sit down and watch film, and he could tell us what we were doing wrong like he did our freshman and sophomore years."
"He made things so much easier to understand," Jerrod added. "You’d hear how you were supposed to do things at practice, and then Dad would sit down and make it all seem so much simpler. He was a tremendous resource for us."
With help from the hospital staff, the family took Mike to a Vermillion game at the DakotaDome this season. Joni saw grimaces occasionally from her husband - a good sign considering the maddening lack of an emotional connection they’re usually coping with.
"He seemed to be watching the field and listening," she said. "He frowned a few times. We weren’t sure if he didn’t like the play call or didn’t like the yardage."
Freidel has a switch he can use to indicate yes and no responses to questions. When he’s alert, he’s fairly accurate with those responses.
The family sees glimpses of the husband and father they used to know, however. Recently, Kelsey was telling him about breaking up with her boyfriend and was startled when her father squeezed her hand really hard.
"I didn’t know whether he was mad at the guy or he was glad I dumped him, but it was pretty cool," she said. "He’ll look you in the eye sometimes - he actually has pretty expressive features. He can be very silent and still get a point across. He still has that from before the accident."
The high school football season has its pleasures and pains. The three boys are having good seasons for Vermillion, and their games have been a weekly gathering spot for the Freidels as well as Mike’s and Joni’s extended families.
The sons’ successes, however, have pointed to the glaring absence of their father in a part of their lives where they’d always shared a passion.
"Sometimes we’ll be talking about football with my dad, having a pretty good time," said Reid Meierkort, USD head coach Ed Meierkort’s son and a close friend of the boys.
"And then they’ll get kind of quiet. You know they’re thinking about the same kind of conversations we used to have with their dad."
At one game this year, Kylen caught a touchdown pass from Reid Meierkort, Jerrod ran for a touchdown and Jackson intercepted a pass. Ed Meierkort was watching, and he couldn’t help but think about what his friend of nearly 30 years was missing.
"I thought about how proud Mike would be of those kids. When you visit Mike, you try to communicate that to him, but you just don’t know what is being communicated. I always tell the guys, `Your dad would be very proud of you,’ but you know that him not being there has to hurt."
Keeping the faith
Ed Meierkort calls Joni Freidel “without a doubt the toughest lady I’ve ever met,” and those around the family, while eager to help them, uniformly vouch for their ability to cope.
"I personally can’t imagine what they must be going through, but if there’s a situation where you need to be tough, they’re the right family for it," said Hojer, who has gotten to know several of the Freidel children. "I’m sure Mike preached to his kids to be tough just like he preached it to us."
The tough days are tough days, though, even if you’re tough, too. “To some people, it might seem like this has gone on for a year or so,” Jackson said. “But to us, it seems like forever.”
Six-month and 12-month anniversaries have come and gone without the heartening breakthroughs they’re praying for. At 18 months to two years, patients who have dealt with similar accidents typically have recovered as much as they’re going to recover. Mike Freidel is in that window now.
"Every injury of this type is different," Joni Freidel said. "His doctors, his neurologists - they don’t really know. They won’t even offer a prognosis. Normally, people have recovered what they’re going to recover after two years. That’s what’s normal, that’s the average."
Sitting in an empty staff room at Vermillion High School with her five children around her, she added: “But we all here all hope and pray that, since we know he wasn’t normal before, he wasn’t average before the accident, why would he be average now?”
Community’s support comforts family
The Freidel family has been overwhelmed by the support from friends, the Vermillion community, their church and people who know Mike Freidel from the University of South Dakota, Augustana and Dakota State.
"Even now, people come up to me and tell me they’re praying for my dad," Kelsey said. "That means a lot. Maybe even more now than it did a year ago."
Last year during a fundraiser spearheaded by Joni’s sister, Steph Moser, almost $15,000 was raised for the family via various activities and auctions held at USD and Augustana the week of the Coyote-Viking football game.
Thousands of “Team Freidel” T-shirts were distributed throughout the DakotaDome that day and still are seen regularly at USD games.
"I was out working in Sturgis during the rally, and I saw a woman I’d never seen before with leather chaps on and a bandanna wearing a Team Freidel shirt," Kelsey said. "That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen."
- Mick Garry, Argus Leader
The University of South Dakota volleyball team began the Summit League season with a bang last week, knocking off the top two teams from a year ago in succession at the DakotaDome.
Coach Matt Houk had a lot to feel good about after the Coyotes dispatched Fort Wayne 3-0 on Friday and IUPUI on Sunday in five games.
USD had finished up the non-conference part of the season with a visit to Wichita to play three teams – Hawaii, Creighton and Wichita State —- that are click above Summit League teams. USD lost nine consecutive games that weekend, but came away in just the manner Houk had hoped. That is, better informed, with confidence intact.
“The timing of that tournament, right before the conference season, was a big positive,” Houk said. “Had we gone to another tournament and gone 4-0 or something like that, we probably would not have been challenged. We could have come out of something like that with a false sense of how good we were. We didn’t want that.
“What we wanted was a challenge. The fear for us was not of losing, the only thing we feared was not learning enough in the non-conference season going into the conference season. We learned we could play at a very high level. When you’re playing teams that are that good, they very quickly figure out what you don’t do well and then they pick on it. We wouldn’t be as aware of our weaknesses right now if we hadn’t played those teams.”
Houk said the key to the Summit wins was blocking. Persistent work there led to opportunities. Kelsey Biltoft had 10 blocks in the 3-0 win over Fort Wayne and then 10 more against IUPUI.
“These two teams were 1-2 last year and picked to finish 1-2 this year,” Houk said. “The fact that we’d never beaten those schools was a great confidence-builder for us. I don’t think we went into those matches lacking confidence, but it never hurts to grow in that area. We’ve played them well in the past, but it was good for us to get over the mental hump against a couple teams that have played us tough. It should bolster us, but we’re going to be big targets now. We’re not going to be able to sneak up on anybody.”
The Coyotes lost at home to Western Illinois a year ago in a contest they had tied at 17-17. As was so often the case, the fourth quarter was not USD’s friend that day in a 24-17 loss. Nikko Watson, one of the few really big backs in the conference – he’s listed at 6-0, 250 – ran for 126 yards, consistently drawing attention to the fact that the Coyote defense was overmatched physically.
That win wasn’t enough to save Mark Hendrickson’s job, however, and he was whacked after the season. He was replaced by Bob Nielson, the former Minnesota-Duluth coach who won a pair of Division II national championships with the Bulldogs.
With the new coach, the Coyotes can expect things to be a little different, but they’re very familiar with a lot of the Leathernecks’ personnel.
We’ll have a preview story about the game later in the week, but it bears mentioning that Western Illinois was picked to finish ninth in the conference and the Coyotes were picked to finish 10th. Other common ground includes that Western Illinois has lost seven consecutive conference home games. The Coyotes, of course, have yet to win a Missouri Valley Conference game. They’re also on a 17-game road slide, dating back to the win over Minnesota in September of 2010.
Nobody at USD is whining about it, but this is a season where scheduling a little bit of a break – a Panhandle State, a Drake or better yet, another FCS program outside the Top 25 like UC Davis – would have probably been in the Coyotes’ best interest. Instead, they have Northern Arizona, Montana and Kansas in addition to Davis.
There’s nothing unfair about that and nothing improper, but sensible decisions are made all the time in relation to scheduling that have to do with both the expected quality of the home team and the visitors.
Last year, an obvious situation where the Coyotes’ ability to compete was compromised was the NDSU-Howard Wood debacle. I was one who agreed with playing NDSU at Howard Wood. It was a fun thing to do, and made some sense as far as the big picture was concerned, but there’s no doubt it would have made more sense from a purely competitive standpoint to have played that game in the Dome.
Would it have made any difference? Yes. I’d guess USD would have lost 53-0 rather than 54-0. But seriously, regardless of the outcome, it put a struggling program in an even tougher spot. That much everybody knew going into it. And if it was a brilliant idea and supported 100 percent by others at USD, they’d do it again. On that count, don’t hold your breath.
This topic of compromised competitiveness will come up again when the Coyotes finish the season with Montana, SDSU and NDSU. Trust me on this, it will seem a little odd to have to play what will likely be a top-10 nonconference opponent in November with a pair of highly regarded regional rivals to follow. Somehow, some way, I have to think the football program’s best competitive interests were not embraced when the decision was made to go ahead with that.
It’s easy to yammer on about how to be the best you have to beat the best, but I think it’s in the best interest of the program to use that philosophy with some discretion. You could say that the only reason this seems like a bad idea now is because USD is currently trying to crawl out of a hole, but to my way of thinking, if USD would catch fire over the next month, having to play a non-conference national title contender in November would seem like an even poorer decision than it already is.
OK, got off on a little bit of a rant there when I should be concentrating on the tussle with the Leathernecks this week. This contest represents a chance for the Joe Glenn regime to show that things are getting better. Bob Nielson and the Leathernecks will be thinking precisely the same thing, of course.
The chartered plane’s landing at the Flagstaff airport today was one for the books. Usually things settle down a little when you’re getting close to the ground – I sat by a fighter pilot on a previous flight and he explained it to me – but not this time. Calamitous from start to finish. Hit the ground hard, jump up a little, land again, then slam on the brakes. When it was over, the players began to applaud.
It likely added some spark to the Coyotes’ walk-thru at Walkup Skydome. It’s a domed stadium with a wooden roof and it holds 10,000. Attendance varies, ranging from sellouts to less than 5,000. I’m guessing Saturday’s crowd will fall somewhere in between.
I’m calling this the Joe Salem Bowl in honor of the former USD football coach, who left USD after the 1974 season to coach at Northern Arizona. He was there for four years and had a 26-17 record prior to leaving for Minnesota.
As far as the actual game goes, I see defense of the run as a big factor. The Lumberjacks have one of the best in FCS in Zach Bauman. He hasn’t done much so far, however, running for just 56 yards last week in their win over UC Davis. NAU coach Jerome Souers attributed some of the problems to having a pair of starting offensive linemen who are redshirt freshmen. Expect Bauman to run the ball until the Coyotes show they can stop him. Looking at the Kansas tape, they have to figure they can get their go-to guy loose a few times.
Last year the Lumberjacks went 8-3 with losses to former Great West programs Cal Poly and Southern Utah in their last two games, spoiling hopes for a playoff berth. They return nine starters on defense, however. My hunch is they’ll be very difficult to move the ball on, especially early. USD guard Andrew Schofield called it the best defensive line the Coyotes have seen this year. The linebackers and defensive backs aren’t too bad either, outscoring the entire UC Davis team last week by a score of 14-10 in a 21-10 win.
Joe Glenn expects a close game. He expected a close game against UC Davis and he got it. He expected the Northern Arizona game with UC David to be close and that was also on the mark. This week, he’s expecting more of the same.
For that to happen, USD is going to have to bank on a few of the standard tried-and-true pregame clichés. Mistakes in a close game are magnified. Resolve tends to mean quite a bit, and stopping the run game, in this specific instance, will need to take place for the Coyotes to have a serious chance of breaking up a 16-game road losing streak.
A lot of people will be looking for improvement in the punt game, which cost the Coyotes dearly against Kansas, and the passing game. Ironically, the less people see of either, the better. No punts would be just fine with Glenn and no passes would mean Trevor Bouma, Jordan Roberts and Josh Vander Maten are doing very well in finding yardage with the zone read plays.
I would guess the passing you do see will pretty conservative. Trevor Bouma will see several balls come his way. When USD does try to go to its wide receivers, I’m thinking you’ll see short routes.
Statistically, the Coyotes can be encouraged in two areas: They’ve given up just 110 yards passing a game and they’ve run for more than 200 yards in two straight games. It’s way too early to take much stock in such things, but if USD can come close to those same marks against NAU, they definitely have a shot.