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Opponent Breakdown: Week 4, South Dakota

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

To get you ready for each of Northwestern’s opponents, we’re singling out players to watch on both sides of the ball, one major strength, one glaring weakness and one under the radar player to keep an eye on. For some statistical insight, we’ll also provide context with some basic numbers and facts. This week we look at South Dakota.

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Players to watch

Offense: QB Josh Vander Maten

Running has never been a concern for Vander Maten. As one of South Dakota’s best overall athletes, He regularly escapes pass rushers and is a dynamic runner downfield. Throwing is where Vander Maten has limitations. And until he can master that crucial aspect of the position, the sophomore, who won the starting job for the first time this season, will operate from a limited playbook. Unless he improves his arm strength and accuracy, South Dakota can’t hope to run a balanced offensive attack, not without a viable passing game. Through two games this season, Vander Maten has shown signs of improvement. While he’s only thrown for 274 total yards, Vander Maten completed 70.6 percent of his passes and has tossed just two interceptions. The Coyotes are a team in transition: new league, new starting quarterback, young offensive line. Vander Maten will grow into his role, but – much like the Coyotes as a whole – there will be early growing pains.

Defense: Tyler Starr

The defensive line has been exposed against the run in consecutive weeks. The Coyotes, despite not giving up any huge pass plays, have yielded 552 yards on the ground at a 4.9-yards per carry clip. Starr is perhaps the one redeeming aspect of USD’s front seven play. After bursting on the scene last season with 14 sacks (which ranked second all-time in school history), seven forced fumbles and 19 tackles for loss, Starr is primed to elevate his game in 2012. With 12 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack already under his belt, Starr is off to a hot start. By season’s end, we could be talking about one of the best defensive players in the FCS. Starr is an FBS-caliber talent whose game translates to any level of competition. He had one of his best games last season against Air Force, and even held his own against Wisconsin. The preseason All-American is arguably USD’s best player, on either side of the ball. Starr is a disruptive pass-rusher, whether he’s facing FCS or FBS opponents. He will make his presence felt Saturday against Northwestern.

Biggest Strength: Pass defense

With the linebackers and defensive line struggling to contain opposing run games, the secondary has provided sound and disciplined coverage in the back end of the defense. The defensive backfield has yielded only 174.5 passing yards per game, which is even more impressive when you consider the Coyotes’ poor defensive line play. Led by cornerback Chris Frierson, the secondary has locked down receivers while limiting big plays. There’s no telling whether USD’s strong pass defense will hold up. At this early stage, it could just as easily be a byproduct of poor run defense as it is actual, effective pass coverage. But until an opposing quarterback proves the Coyotes’ secondary can be exploited, it would be unfair to label its performance a matter of circumstance. USD has defended the pass, and done so deftly; whether that holds up through a brutal Missouri Valley schedule is an open question.

Biggest weakness: Run defense

For all of Starr’s pass-rushing exploits, his ultimate impact has been limited by the Coyotes’ inability to stop the run and force third and long situations, where Starr can attack unsuspecting QBs off the edge. The run defense has struggled in particular against the option, the trickery and deception of which has confused inexperienced defensive linemen. The baseline for any effective defense is stopping the run. If opponents can advance drives on the ground, if running the ball is an effective offensive gameplan in and of itself, then there’s no need to risk throwing the ball. In week one, the Coyotes conceded 315 rushing yards against Montana, one of the best FCS programs in the country, then gave up 237 yards on the ground to Colgate. That needs to change if USD hopes to undergo a smooth transition into its new league. Effective run games exhaust opposing defenses. When lines are repeatedly manhandled at the line of scrimmage, the physical and mental demoralization factor rises to untenable levels. Starr can help in this regard, but the line must make collective improvements going forward.

Under the radar: WR Terrance Terry 

Since installing Joe Glenn as its latest head coach, South Dakota has produced an unlikely playmaker, one who just last season recorded more special teams tackles (three) than receptions (one). Terry has registered 146 receiving yards in two games, including an 80-yd touchdown against Montana. At 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, the sophomore is an explosive target with excellent hands. Though he grew up attending Northwestern games – Terry is a Barrington, Ill., native – Terry didn’t expect he’d ever get a chance to play against the Wildcats. Before Glenn was hired, Terry never believed he’d earn such an important offensive role by the time he returned home to take on the Wildcats. But through two games, he’s arguably USD’s best offensive playmaker. While Vander Maten continues to mature as a passer, Terry will provide a reliable target. This young qb-wr tandem has the makings of something prolific, and it’s only now beginning to flourish. If Vander Maten can improve his throwing, and Terry grows more comfortable within the offense, the Coyotes have a dangerous offensive pairing from which the rest of the offense can be built to supplement.