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Opponent Q&A: Mick Garry, Columnist from The Argus Leader (South Dakota)

Each week, InsideNU will bring you an opponent’s take on the matchup ahead in the interest of providing a wider perspective on each game. With South Dakota visiting Evanston this weekend, we got in touch with Argus Leader columnist Mick Garry. The Argus Leader is South Dakota's No. 1 newspaper by circulation. Garry will be making the trip to Ryan Field this weekend. His work can be found here. Follow The Argus Leader on Twitter @argusleader.

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What is South Dakota's greatest strength? greatest weakness?

After two games, the secondary has yet to give up any huge pass plays, so I guess you’d have to go there for the greatest strength. The defense has a Big 10-level player in outside linebacker/defensive end Tyler Starr, but the rest of the defensive line and linebacking crew has struggled to stop the run game this year. Stopping the run is definitely the team’s biggest problem right now. Specifically, any option handoff or QB keeper out of the shot gun that is  headed toward the middle of the defense.  USD struggled to stop the play in a loss at Montana and again in a home victory over Colgate, though there was definitely some improvement in week 2.

What has been the biggest difference within the program since new head coach Joe Glenn took over in December? What are the reasonable expectations for his first season?

I don’t know that there has been any dramatic difference that I can tell so far in how the team plays. They lost a game at Montana, where almost nobody wins – the Grizzlies have won 32 of their last 33 games at home – and they beat Colgate at home in a game they were supposed to win.  A great majority of the guys on the field were all recruited by the previous coaching staff. In addition, Glenn retained several of former coach Ed Meierkort’s staff, including offensive coordinator Wes Beschorner. The defense under new coordinator Jason Petrino has switched to a 3-4 front, so that would be one tangible difference.

Glenn is a very charismatic guy – he really as that big-time personality I associate with big-time coaches and I think his long-term prospects for continuing to build a solid program are very good, but signs point toward 2012 being difficult. It’s a first-year quarterback with four of the five offensive linemen getting extensive playing time for the first time in their careers. As Glenn has told me a few times, “They’re good players, they just need some birthdays.”

Reasonable expectations? I’d say four or five wins this season would be doing pretty well. The Missouri Valley is pretty tough this year by FCS standards. We’re not talking about Big 10 stuff, obviously, but if you look at the scores of the FBS vs. MVC teams this year, they’ve been pretty competitive.

Assess the performance of sophomore quarterback Josh Vander Maten in his first season as the full-time starter. Does his skill set fit well within coordinator Wesley Beschorner's system?

Josh Vander Maten looks like he’s getting a little better week-by-week to this point. He hasn’t started the world on fire statistically, but he’s looking more comfortable. He’s a smart, strong kid and one of the fastest players on the team, but  getting more comfortable with the passing game will be where he’s measured. The program, dating back to when Beschorner himself was quarterback, has gone with the athlete at QB vs. the drop-back guys. Dante Warren, an Illinois guy, had a nice two years at QB at USD  prior to graduating last year. Vander Maten did not get a lot of playing time behind Warren, which is making this early season stuff a pretty intense learning experience.
As a guy who will tuck it and run, he makes a pretty good fit for Beschorner. USD has run a lot of set plays for him as a runner so far and I expect they’ll make an attempt at the same against the Wildcats. Obviously, the front line at Northwestern is going to be a little feistier on that count than Colgate’s.

How do you expect the Coyotes to fare in their inaugural year in the Missouri Valley Conference?

USD began its transition to FCS from Division II five years ago. The program went from 36 scholarships to around 55 and then to the full-boat 63 for FCS. The Coyotes played in the Great West Conference with Cal Poly, North Dakota, UC Davis and Southern Utah. Those are all very decent FCS programs but it accounted for just four games a year. Playing in a conference where you’re playing a Cal Poly kind of a team every week is going to be a new experience for the program and one that I’m guessing USD will struggle with. They’re picked to finish right near the bottom and anything higher than that will be seen as overachieving. The MVC has five teams in the FCS top 25, so the Coyotes are not going to get any Saturdays off this year. The Colgate game was probably the only game they’ll enter all season as the favorite.

Seniors Marcus Sims and Will Powell led the team in rushing and receiving last season. Do you expect the same this year? Who are some other playmakers to watch on offense? Who are the Coyotes' best playmakers on defense?

I would expect by the end of the year they will be the leading rusher and receiver, yes. Marcus Sims is a very strong kid and very fast. He’s not particularly shifty but if he gets into the secondary with some momentum he’s tough to bring down. This year he’s occasionally sharing the ball with Jasper Sanders, a juco transfer, who is a little shiftier but not as strong. Will Powell is a good-sized receiver at 6-1, 205 and he’s had a real nice career at USD. He’s got a knack for coming up with the ball in traffic. He went nuts in the win over Minnesota two years ago.
Terrance Terry, a wide receiver who played at Barrington High School and went to Northwestern games as a kid, has 10 catches this year and two touchdowns, so he’s emerging as a new weapon on offense.

While I’m on the topic, the squad has a lot of kids from the Chicago area. Former coach Ed Meierkort is a Chicago native and recruited the area pretty well. Vander Maten’s backup at QB is Kevin Earl, son of former Chicago Bear Robin Earl. The younger Earl, who is a freshman after being redshirted last season, has not been in a game yet at USD but I’d guess if the game gets out of hand, he’ll see the field on Saturday.

On defense, the aforementioned Tyler Starr was a preseason All-America. He had 14 sacks last year, so he’s definitely the main dude. He was more of a DE last year and now he’s lining up at outside linebacker, so it’s a little different. The Coyotes’ inability to stop the run has minimized his effectiveness so far. He’s not getting the third-and-long situations where his pass-rushing ability would best be utilized. He had a heck of a game against Air Force last year, so he can play with the big guys but he’s going to need some teammates who can do the same. Cornerback Chris Frierson probably measures up as a Big 10 athlete and is capable of a big play as well.

What is the excitement level for the renewal of the South Dakota-South Dakota State Rivalry this season?

I’m not sure everyone at SDSU was doing backflips in celebration when USD got into the MVC, but now the battle is on and I’d guess both teams will be pretty fired up about it. SDSU did very well in the transition and has fielded a very competitive program every season since they left Division II.  People around here who are only casually involved in rooting for either program will be paying attention to that game. For that reason, I think it was very important to get it going. The state of South Dakota is a little odd in that way – most sports fans around here devote most their energies to rooting for one of the nearby major schools – Nebraska, Iowa or Minnesota, for instance – rather than the school they attended.

Prediction?

The Coyotes are 1-1 against the Big 10 since 2010 and I think they’re headed for 1-2. USD lost 59-10 to Wisconsin last year, which I’d use as a measuring stick here. I’m not sure the ’Cats are the equal of  that 2011 Badger squad with Russell Wilson but the Coyotes are much younger at a lot of spots than the USD team that went to Camp Randall, so I think you’re looking at a similar score. If USD can hang onto the ball and slow the game down here and there, I suppose it could get interesting but I just don’t see it. It’s looking like they’re playing a Northwestern team that could get some things done in the Big 10 this year. I expect the Coyote offensive line vs. the Northwestern defensive line will be a very difficult matchup for USD.