BY JEREMY HOECK
VERMILLION – As Joe Glenn sat on a sideline bench at the DakotaDome following a University of South Dakota football practice this week, he recapped some of the bright spots from his team’s performance from the previous week.
Most of his focus centered on the defense.
And that’s been a familiar topic – and for the Coyotes, a welcome change – this season for USD (2-2), which will take its No. 16-ranked defense to Western Illinois on Saturday.
“We’re doing a lot of things on defense we didn’t do a year ago,” Glenn said.
“I’ve been real proud of the way those kids are coming along. If they keep playing like that, we’ll be in some games.”
Last week’s 31-3 loss to Youngstown State was a bit deceiving for the USD defense: Three Coyote turnovers led directly to 17 points for the Penguins, which saw four of their scoring drives go for 4, 4, 1 and 2 plays.
Even the season-opening 34-0 loss at Kansas State had its bright spots for the USD defense: The Big 12 Conference Wildcats returned a kickoff for a touchdown and later had scoring drives of 1 and 5 plays.
Put another way, the Coyotes look to be much improved from a year ago, when stopping teams from having a big day became an issue.
“We’re a totally different team than last year, I can see it,” said Tyson Graham, a junior free safety. “Everybody has much more experience, which makes everything easier.
“The sky’s the limit for us.”
With mostly the same faces as last year’s defense that allowed nearly an average of 40 points in league play, the Coyotes made an off-season switch from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 – with an extra lineman.
The result, to this point, has been immediate.
“The bodies we have fit a 4-3 better than what we did with the 3-4,” said senior linebacker Ryan Hillier.
Seniors Drew Iddings and Nick Jacobs have controlled the middle of the line, while junior Colin Mertlik and redshirt freshman Andrew Van Ginkel have given USD a boost from the edge. Backups like junior Sean Bredl, junior Jon Maag and sophomore Jake Leohr have also produced.
“All those guys are freaky athletes, so we can just stay back there and do our thing,” Graham said.
And so far, that thing has produced.
A pair of nagging problems last year has now become a strength for USD: Pressure and takeaways. The Coyotes are already ahead of last year’s pace with eight sacks (five Van Ginkel) and seven interceptions.
Perhaps the biggest area of improvement, however, has come in stopping the run.
Last year, the Coyote defense allowed teams to rush for 235 yards a game, while this season through four games that average is down to 127.
“The big thing for us is stopping the run,” Hillier said. “We’ve always struggled with doing that. If we can do that and eliminate the big plays, we’ll definitely have a shot.”
The Coyotes will have perhaps their biggest test of the season Saturday at Western Illinois and its bruising running back Nikko Watson.
Despite missing the first two games this season, the 6-foot, 250-pound junior – who sat out last year – has rushed for 330 yards and four touchdowns.
Everything the Coyotes have done to this point on defense, particularly against the run, will be tested against Watson. Having held Youngstown State – which torched USD for 309 yards a year ago – to 143 yards on the ground last week should, at least, instill some confidence for what’s ahead for the Coyotes.
“The Missouri Valley is no joke,” Graham said. “Experience comes in handy a lot.
“You’ve got big running backs; you have to know how to bring those guys down. You can’t just expect to come in and bring them down with a simple shoulder.”
Especially against a bruiser like Watson.
“They run him straight ahead, and even if you don’t get a clean hold, he’ll push the pile,” Glenn said. “That’s concerning.”
What hasn’t been a concern, unlike previous seasons, has been having defenders out on the field who have gone through a season or two in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
The Coyotes returned all four starters in the secondary, with senior cornerbacks Chris Tyler and Mike Lilly, and junior safeties Graham and Jacob Warner.
Gone are the surprises. Even the backups have gone through the fire.
“The game is just becoming easier for us with that extra year, we know what to expect,” Graham said. “Everything has slowed down for us.”
While the defense has played like an improved unit through four games, Graham said he and his teammates realize they have to maintain that performance through the rest of the season.
“Everything is just clicking for us right now, we’re just going to try to keep it going,” he said.