VERMILLION — The word ‘playoffs’ wasn’t even mentioned.
It’s still a possibility, albeit an increasingly slim one, for the South Dakota football team, but Saturday’s performance against top-ranked North Dakota State — a 59-14 drubbing — produced one key question.
How can the Coyotes right the ship?
The showdown with the Bison provided USD with a critical chance to make a statement to the rest of FCS, but instead, the Coyotes (3-5) have now lost three straight and will need to win their final three games to even have a chance at playoff consideration.
None of that was mentioned, though, following the loss.
“I told them in the locker room, ‘Draw a line in the sand and kind of start over,’” USD head coach Bob Nielson said.
“We have to figure a few things out.”
And on both sides of the ball, he added.
North Dakota State (8-0) ran for 384 yards, compiled a total of 560 yards, built a 28-0 lead and held the Coyote offense to two touchdowns.
That’s now seven turnovers in the past three games for USD, which has allowed 130 points in that stretch.
“We’re a team right now that because of what’s happened over the last three weeks, with a combination of turnovers and some mistakes, we’re not playing as confidently as we need to,” Nielson said.
If ‘playoffs’ wasn’t a term that was going to be used, ‘confidence’ sure was.
“There’s a lack of confidence, I think, sometimes in some of our players,” said junior defensive lineman Darin Greenfield.
That’s on the upperclassmen, he added, to ensure that everyone coming into the game is feeling confident.
“Sometimes when you second guess yourself, you play slow, and when you play slow, they score touchdowns,” Greenfield said.
And there were plenty of touchdowns surrendered Saturday.
The Bison, the defending national champion, built a 21-0 lead after the first quarter and pushed it to 28-0 in the second quarter. Then, with the game already in hand, NDSU out-scored the Coyotes 17-0 in the fourth quarter.
North Dakota State quarterback Easton Stick passed for 176 yards and three touchdowns, and rushed for 79 yards and two scores.
In total, the Bison averaged eight yards a carry against a Coyote defense that has now allowed at least 24 points in every game this season.
“We’re having a hard time stopping teams right now,” Nielson said. “We’re not playing very good defense. Some of that is correctable, I think.”
The Coyotes also need to be more efficient on offense to overcome those defensive struggles, Nielson added.
Over the last three games, junior quarterback Austin Simmons has passed for two touchdowns and three interceptions, and he’s been sacked 10 times in that span.
He was also USD’s leading rusher on Saturday, with 115 yards and a touchdown. Beyond that, though, the Coyotes ran 25 times for 49 yards.
“We needed to score 35 points in that kind of a game to have a chance, and we didn’t get that done,” Nielson said.
Now, the task for the Coyotes is to get both sides of the ball shored up for the stretch run in the Missouri Valley.
They visit Indiana State next Saturday, will then host Western Illinois and will close the regular season at South Dakota State. South Dakota would need to win all three games to get to 6-5 and put itself in the FCS playoff at-large conversation — beating the top-10 Jackrabbits would help.
But once again, it’s not playoffs that the Coyotes are worried about right now. They simply want to turn a corner.
“We’ve got do a better job from a coaching standpoint of putting together plans that we can execute and execute with a little more confidence,” Nielson said.
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