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.