BY JEREMY HOECK
VERMILLION – Ryan Hillier was a key fixture on a University of South Dakota defense that ranked among the national leaders in areas you’d want to lead a nation in: Sacks, pass defense, turnovers and interceptions.
Hillier, a linebacker from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, played in all 12 games that season.
He was also a fixture in a Coyote defense that took significant steps back last season, as USD struggled to another winless record in Missouri Valley Football Conference play.
Through four games this season, Hillier and his defensive teammates are back causing problems for opposing offenses.
USD ranks No. 16 nationally in total defense, with an average of 303.5 yards allowed per game. The only problem is, that ranks third in the Missouri Valley Football Conference – Youngstown State is first and North Dakota State is fourth.
The Coyotes are already ahead of last year’s pace with eight sacks (five by Andrew Van Ginkel) and seven interceptions, which led head coach Joe Glenn to say Tuesday, “We’re doing a lot of things on defense we didn’t do a year ago.”
By looking at some of the scores, one could get the impression that USD isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire on defense – the Coyotes allowed 34 points to Kansas State and 31 last week to Youngstown State. On closer examination, though, Kansas State scored a touchdown on a kickoff return, and Youngstown State took advantage of three USD turnovers to score on short fields (there were drives of 4 plays, 4 plays, 1 play and 2 plays).
Hillier answered a couple questions from the Press & Dakotan after Tuesday’s practice at the DakotaDome.
It just seems like the defense has taken a step forward this year. What could you point to where the defense has gotten better?
I think we’ve come together a lot better, and we’re starting to understand the system more. Just the older guys, with the preparation, we’re seeing what teams like to do and we’ve been through it before to know what to look for.
Experience was a huge part of it, wasn’t it?
Big time, yeah. It’s always nice to have guys in front of us like Colin (Mertlik), Drew (Iddings), Nick (Jacobs) and Sean (Bredl); older guys, guys that have seen what Valley football is like.
How much of it is needing to go through this league a couple times?
It’s always very helpful. Coach (Jason) Petrino and coach (Wes) Beschorner always preach film, so having that experience from film and then on the field is always nice.
Has the new 4-3 scheme had an impact?
Yeah it has a lot. The bodies we have fit a 4-3 better than what we did with the 3-4. That’s been nice.
What did you think of last week? Those turnovers by the offense certainly gave Youngstown State some short fields. Did you feel like overall, the defense did what it needed to do?
I feel like we did, yeah. We still have some areas where we can definitely improve, and coach Petrino pointed that out right away on Monday. We’re really never satisfied. We still have way too many missed assignments that we can continue to work on, but I feel like it’s a step in the right direction.
It looks like there have been fewer missed assignments, not as many big plays. Have you noticed that as well?
Yeah, exactly. That’s what we preach every week, eliminate the big plays. That’s what we try to do every week. If we can do that, it’s successful defensive football.
What’s it going to take to beat Western Illinois?
The big thing for us is stopping the run. We’ve always struggled with doing that. If we can do that and eliminate the big plays, we’ll definitely have a shot.
Did you feel like stopping the run was a key last week?
They have really good running backs and they’re really experienced, and you could tell they wanted to run the ball. A lot of the teams in the Valley do. It’s the same with Western (Illinois), if you can stop the run, it puts your defense in a good position.
That’s the key in this league, isn’t it?
Exactly. If you can do that, you can be a pretty successful defense.