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By The Numbers: Dissecting Northwestern's Week 4 Opponent -- South Dakota

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

Numbers can be manipulated in so many different ways to tell so many different stories. There are good statistics, but plenty of bad ones, too. As part of our preview coverage, we’ll try and pick out five of the former category in the hopes of painting a comprehensive numerical portrait for Northwestern’s upcoming opponent. This week: South Dakota.

1: Game played in the Missouri Valley Conference 

In South Dakota’s first game of its inaugural season in the Missouri Valley Conference, a top-tier FCS league featuring five teams ranked in the top 25: (1) North Dakota State, (8) Northern Iowa, (11) Montana, (15) Illinois State and (25) Indiana State. The Coyotes took on perennial MVC power Montana in Missoula, where the Grizzlies have won 32 of their last 33 home contests. USD held a nine-point lead with less than 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter and staged a valiant upset bid. But Montana scored three straight touchdowns in a four-minute span to seal the win. Though the end result wasn’t what it may have hoped, USD proved it compete with the very best of the MVC. It was an encouraging league opener, and the Coyotes can only hope it’s a sign of things to come. By joining the MVC, USD has officially completed the transition from Division II to FCS. That’s important from a competitive standpoint, but it’s also worth noting USD started out with just 36 available scholarships. It now carries 63 scholarship players, per FCS rules.

146: Receiving yards for Terrance Terry

A two-way player last season for the Coyotes, Terry is primed to step into the No. 1 receiver role. Through two games this season, he’s proven an indispensable weapon on offense. He registered four catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns) including an 80-yd score to give USD the lead in the fourth quarter) in the losing effort at Montana, then followed that with six receptions for 37yards against Colgate. Two games is hardly enough time to judge whether Terry’s early performance is more blip than trend, but if he continues to produce, Terry can provide first-year starting quarterback Josh Vander Maten with a reliable target. In keeping with the recent tradition of USD quarterbacks, Vander Maten is a run-first signal-caller. Still, when opposing teams shut down the coyotes’ run game, Terry is an alternate source of offensive firepower that can help Vander Maten lead a balanced attack.

Side note: Terry, a Barrington, Illinois, native, attended multiple Northwestern games before moving for school. This weekend provides a homecoming, of sorts, for the sophomore receiver.

14: Sacks last season for Tyler Starr 

There are plenty of holes in this USD defense, but Starr – a preseason All-America after a breakout sophomore campaign in which he ranked in the top 10 nationally in sacks, notched seven forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries and recorded a league-high 19 tackles for loss – gives the Coyotes a bona fide Big Ten-level athlete and a potential NFL prospect. Starr held his own in games against Wisconsin and Air Force last season, so he’s not afraid of big-time competition. At 6-5, 230, he brings great speed and power off the edge, not to mention great pass-rushing intangibles. In order for USD to compete in a brutal MVC this season, Starr will need to build off his, ahem, starring campaign of last season. The Coyotes struggled to stop the run last season, and through two games have already allowed 552 yards on the ground. Starr gives USD a formidable presence off the edge, which should help nullify opposing teams’ passing games. He’s already compiled 12 tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss in 2012, with many, many more to come.

137: Average passing yards per game for Josh Vander Maten

Perhaps the only silver lining in USD’s 59-10 demolition in Madison last season was Vander Maten’s fourth-quarter touchdown pass. The game was well out of hand by that point, but it showed Vander Maten, then a redshirt freshman, could make plays against strong competition. With Vander Maten, superb running and escapability has always been a baseline expectation, which is why his 103 yards of rushing offense this season comes as no surprise. Vander Maten is one of USD’s fastest players. There are a score of designed-run plays devised specifically to maximize Vander Maten’s skill set. The Coyotes have long excelled with quarterbacks of his ilk. This is nothing new. It’s Vander Maten’s passing that needs work. Once he develops as a passer, the sophomore could blossom into one of the MVC’s better quarterbacks. At this early stage in his career, it’s all about getting comfortable within the offense, about gleaning insight for the challenges ahead, about laying a foundation for future growth. Vander Maten’s passing will lag behind his running this season, but he’s already shown improvement from last season and should continue to progress going forward.

.500: winning percentage against the Big Ten since 2010

It was just two years ago that USD went into TCF Bank Stadium and knocked off the Gophers in a 41-38 thriller. Quarterback Dante Warren threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns and added 81 yards and two scores on the ground in a masterful display of dual-threat functionality. One year later, Warren was completely shut down by Wisconsin in a 59-10 rout. The Coyotes managed just 48 passing yards and 120 rushing yards. Those are two vastly different outcomes against two vastly different teams. In 2010, Minnesota won three games and probably amounted to the equivalent of an upper-tier FCS team; while they should have beaten USD, it’s no surprise the Coyotes were able to take down those Gophers. Last year’s Wisconsin team was for much of the season very much alive in the National Title race. Led by now-NFL starting quarterback Russell Wilson, tailback Montee Ball, one of the best offensive lines in college football and a talented defense, the Badgers were a Big Ten juggernaut. USD was outclassed, and understandably so.

This year’s Big Ten matchup will feature something in the middle; Northwestern, at least as far as I can tell, is not as strong as last year’s Wisconsin, nor is it as weak as 2010 Minnesota. It’s a good, but not great team. Still, this Coyotes squad is inexperienced in key spots, including quarterback and the offensive line. So even if they were facing one of the Big Ten’s weaker teams, this season – a transition year, with a new head coach and a new league – does not present favorable upset conditions. Their victory over a Big Ten opponent, albeit a weak Minnesota team, is impressive, but it’s unlikely they can reprise that upset magic in 2012.