Sacrificial season: USD winning in impressive fashion following a down year in 2022
VERMILLION, S.D. – Only six times in the last decade have the North Dakota State Bison lost in the Fargodome.
Three times to South Dakota State, once to now-FBS James Madison in the playoffs and now twice to the University of South Dakota.
Last Saturday, the resurgent Coyotes raided Fargo for a 24-19 victory over their cross-state foe. It was USD head coach Bob Nielson’s first win over NDSU since he took over in 2016 and the team’s first win against NDSU since 2015.
“I said after the game, to go up to their place and win, you’re not just beating one of the best teams in our conference, you’re beating one of the best teams in the country - a proven team that is playing at a national championship level year in, year out,” Nielson said. “It’s a win we can certainly build off of and that’s what we have to keep doing. It’s not nearly as big a deal if we don’t build off of it.”
That approach has been crucial for USD in the new season after struggling through a down year in 2022.
Last season the Coyotes finished 3-8 with a sputtering offense and a defense that was spending a lot of time on the field because of it. That ghastly combination led to a 3-8 record and quite a few lopsided results, going out with a whimper at home in a 58-14 blowout loss to Northern Iowa.
But now just one season removed from those afflictions, USD is undefeated in the FCS at 3-1 with its only loss coming at FBS Missouri in the opener.
Externally, that may come as a surprise to some but internally, the Yotes knew they had the potential to make that sort of turnaround.
“It (2022) was a frustrating year for a lot of us,” Nielson said. “We felt we were a better football team than what our record showed … we had to come together as a football team and regroup a little bit.”
And it was that simple.
From the outside looking in, it might’ve appeared wins were going to evade USD for years to come. But there was much more to their trials and tribulations than meets the eye, and if you look closely, it shows that the down year was only a launching pad into success.
Things are not always as they seem
There’s no denying that five games under .500 is bad. Going 3-8 was USD’s worst finish in a season since 2014 when it concluded the year 2-10 under Joe Glenn.
But contrary to what some may think, the 2022 Coyotes weren’t just a bad team. There were inner workings that led to their demise that fall.
Of course, playing in the Missouri Valley is always tough as it is perennially one of the best FCS conferences in the country, but the Yotes had it particularly bad a season ago.
They opened at Kansas State who went on to win the Big 12, and then followed that up by playing three of their next four games against top-2 ranked FCS teams in Montana (#2), NDSU (#1) and SDSU (#2), two of which were on the road.
“There were times that we played OK, but we were 1-4 after 5 weeks and it took a little wind out of our sails and affected our confidence a little bit as a football team and had a hard time getting that back,” Nielson said. “We had a couple of big wins, beating a ranked Southern Illinois team here at home and lost a couple on the road we had chances to win and I think that’s one of the things I’ve learned in the Valley, you have to find a way to win your close games and that’s what we didn’t do a year ago and as a result, our recorded ended up what our record was.”
At the same time, the program made a monumental shift after just the second game of the season. In a way, it was a sacrifice for this year’s success.
Nielson and co. decided to scrap the entire offensive system and start anew. They were transitioning towards what Nielson would term “old pro-style offense”. Changing the playbook entirely midseason led to natural hardship as they adjusted to a new look.
Starting quarterback Carson Camp, who in the offseason ended up transferring to Sacramento State, eventually gave way to freshman in Aidan Bouman. The offense spent the entire year learning and implementing something new, and points were hard to come by.
This kept their defense on the field working overtime.
“Offensively, things didn’t go well so we had to play a lot of defense and when you play a lot of defense, you’re going to give up more yards and points.”
The final tally showed that USD had just three games where it eclipsed the 20-point mark and conversely, it held opponents below that mark just twice – not an ideal statistic.
But when the season ended, the Yotes were better for it all. They were battle-tested by the best of the best. They were becoming more comfortable in their new offensive scheme with Bouman under center, and when they hired Josh Davis from SDSU to be their offensive coordinator in January 2023, things only got better.
They’ve been rolling ever since, catapulting them into the reawakening we’ve seen in the early going this fall.
“We had a great summer training and hit the ground running in fall camp and felt like we were getting better every week,” Nielson said. “That’s something I would say this season too is that we feel like we’ve been a better football team each week we’ve stepped on the field here over the first four weeks.”
Changes coming to fruition
Just four games in, USD has already matched, and in some ways exceeded, its numbers from last season. It's scored over 20 points three times, and its held opponents below that threshold three times – once more than all of last year.
Again, it’s not that the Coyotes were bad – they were evolving. And now that the offense is up to par, its defense, a unit returning 10 of 11 starters, is feeling the benefit too.
“We’re playing really good complementary football right now - last year we just put a lot of pressure on our defense,” Nielson said.
Now, when they get stops they can trust in the other side of the ball to make use of it – and know they will finally be able to get a breather on the sidelines. It’s led to efficiency from both sides.
In 10 red zone trips this season, USD has scored on all of them. Seven of them have been touchdowns while just three times they’ve had to settle for a field goal. Opponents have scored on just 11-of-15 red zone tries – only seven resulting in trips to the end zone.
While the defense is proving that it was never bad – perhaps just exhausted – the offense is showing night and day improvement starting at the helm with Bouman.
The sophomore QB has been the perfect game-manager for the Yotes. While that title is popularly washed in notoriety when discussing QBs, its all the USD asks of him.
“Our QB in our system, what we ask him to do is lead and manage and he does a great job with that,” Nielson said. “We’ve built our system around the things he does well – he’s able to distribute the football and so some of the things we’re doing compliment his abilities but overall he’s been a steadying influence for us in our transition offensively with his leadership and presence.”
It’s the running back committee that’s done the bulk of the heavy lifting, which is why the team converted to the offensive scheme they did.
“We knew we had really good depth at the running back position, and we’ve found ways to get those guys into the football game in a variety of ways including two of them on the field at the same time and that’s been a way for us to build a system that allows us to get our best 11 out there,” Nielson said. “There’s Nate Thomas, Travis Theis and a couple or three other guys there that have been, besides just running, more involved in the offense in a variety of ways.”
The two aforementioned backs have 255 yards with three scores and 240 yards with two scores, respectively.
It’s all culminated to their upset victory over NDSU on Saturday, which is exciting in and of itself, but the true thrill comes in knowing there’s more that can be done. USD has come a long way, but it isn’t done yet.
“That’s the exciting thing - watching the film on the bus ride home from Fargo, I’m going, ‘Wow, we’ve got a lot of room to get better,’ Nielson said. “And that’s the one thing I will say about this team: there’s a great focus.”