VERMILLION — Asked about the Missouri Valley Football Conference, USD linebacker Tyler Starr instantly talks about those moments where he and his teammates start “dragging” during 29 preseason practices.
In short, the Coyotes can’t afford to stop.
No longer newcomers to the 10-team league, USD will try to further distance itself from last year’s 0-8 welcome to the MVFC. The Coyotes will play three non-conference games before the league opener Sept. 28 at Western Illinois.
“There’s really no bad team in there,” Starr said last week during USD’s media day in Vermillion. “You have to keep that in the back of your mind during fall camp, for when you start thinking about tired you are or how sore you are.
“Guys in this conference do whatever they can to win.”
And win the league does.
The Missouri Valley — annually one of the best leagues in the FCS ranks — sent three teams (North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Illinois State) to the playoffs last year, the 18th straight season at least two qualified.
All three teams won at least one game, with SDSU falling in the second round, Illinois State advancing to the quarterfinals and NDSU winning its second consecutive national title.
Naturally, the Coyotes have their eyes on the Bison, who are the preseason favorite in the MVFC as well as multiple FCS polls.
“They played hard every play; they don’t take plays off,” USD offensive lineman Marc Murtha said. “And that’s something we don’t do either. I’ve seen that so far this camp. We have to play each one hard, just like they do.”
On multiple occasions last year, USD head coach Joe Glenn referenced two specific areas where MVFC teams thrive: Defense and running the ball.
True to form, North Dakota State has led the nation in scoring defense each of the past two seasons, while a MVFC rusher has led the nation in yards per game in two straight years — Shakir Bell (Indiana State, 2011) and Zach Zenner (SDSU, 2012).
“Every guy’s a legit player,” USD junior quarterback Josh Vander Maten said. “We wouldn’t have it any other way, we want to play the best. And the Missouri Valley is one of the best.”
It’s also one of the deepest leagues in the country.
Eight of the current 10 members have won an outright league title, with Northern Iowa well in front with 10 — the last one in 2010.
For what it’s worth, the preseason FCS media poll showed four league teams in the top 25 — NDSU (1), SDSU (6), Illinois State (13) and Northern Iowa (17). Four others, Youngstown State, Indiana State, Southern Illinois and Missouri State, received votes.
Put another way, the only Missouri Valley teams not listed on a ballot: USD and Western Illinois.
In their inaugural season in the conference, the Coyotes found themselves on the losing end of five games decided by a touchdown or less. There were also blowout losses to NDSU by 54 points, to Indiana State by 31 points and SDSU by 23 points.
“It’s a struggle every game. Even at the bigger schools in the SEC or Pac-12, every week is not going to be easy,” USD senior defensive back Devin Taverna said. “You can’t just show up, you have come in ready to work.”
Being competitive and winning is a fine line, though, Taverna added.
The Coyotes found that to be the case at home in the DakotaDome last season. Three losses in Vermillion came by 3, 7 and 3 points, while the showdown with NDSU was moved to Sioux Falls.
Coming to the dome this fall will be Missouri State, Indiana State, Youngstown State and SDSU.
“Every team in the conference is one we can’t look over,” USD senior defensive back Aaron Swift said. “This team can compete with any team in the league, we showed that. Any team that comes in the dome, we can compete with them in some sort of way.”
Following four seasons (2008-11) and a 6-9 record in the Great West Conference, the Coyotes welcomed — and welcome — the challenge of the Missouri Valley, according to Starr.
“If you’re going to win, you want to play the best,” he said. “You judge yourself by who you play.”
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