VERMILLION — Given chances to get off the field, the South Dakota defense couldn’t.

Not once. Not a few times. But plenty of times.

And against a team like Montana, which narrowly missed out on the FCS playoffs a year ago, that was a recipe for trouble.

“At the end of the day, the story really defensively is about us not executing the way we’re capable of,” USD junior Jack Cochrane said after Sunday’s 31-17 season-opening loss at the DakotaDome.

A major execution problem for the Coyotes came on third down against the No. 25-ranked Grizzlies.

Montana, which was all but shut down on the ground, was 10-of-16 on third down — mostly through the air — against a Coyote defense that was so close to getting off the field.

“Part of being a good football team is being situationally aware,” Cochrane said, “and that’s something we have to improve on.”

The disappointment came in two waves, according to USD head coach Bob Nielson.

First, that the Coyotes lost the game, but secondly that they’re capable of playing better, Nielson said.

Ultimately, USD was unable to capitalize on opportunities to repsond in the fourth quarter: The Coyotes were stopped on fourth down on consecutive drives and then had an Austim Simmons pass intercepted with 6:15 remaining.

“We had plenty of red zone opportunities to put points on the board and didn’t get them on the board,” Nielson said. “That really sums up the difference in the football game.”

Another significant difference?

Montana quarterback Dalton Sneed completed 37-of-52 passes for a career-high 430 yards with three touchdowns, and also rushed for a score.

Tackling was an issue for the Coyotes, according to Cochrane, which “made things look worse than they could have been.”

Still, the Grizzlies were able to convert when it mattered.

“I knew coming in this would be a difficult matchup for us,” Nielson said. “They’ve got a really experienced team coming back.

“The quarterback is an outstanding player and he certainly showed that today.”

In the case of the Coyote offense, redshirt sophomore receiver Kody Case was the star. He tied a school record with 11 receptions for 144 yards and two touchdowns.

USD got on the scoreboard first with a Mason Lorber 20-yard field goal early in the second quarter, but the Coyotes had a first down at the Montana 2-yard line.

And then there were two instances in the fourth quarter where USD was inside the Montana 10-yard line but couldn’t convert on fourth down.

“We couldn’t keep drives alive, which was really disappointing,” Nielson said.

As they discussed the game afterward, the Coyotes maintained that the one loss wasn’t going to derail their goals.

“Defensively, my confidence isn’t shaken at all with where we can be at the end of the year,” Cochrane said. “I still think we can be a really good football team.”

What the Coyotes can’t do, and their coach even said he’s not, is let the win have a carryover effect.

“I’m not discouraged,” Nielson said, unabated.

Montana, he added, is likely to be near the top of the Big Sky Conference standings by the time the dust settles on the regular season.

“They’ve got enough experience across the board, I think, that you’ll see them win a lot of games,” Nielson said.

Follow @jhoeck on Twitter

MONTANA (1-0) 0 17 14 0 — 31

SOUTH DAKOTA (0-1) 0 10 7 — 17

Second Quarter

USD — Mason Lorber, 20-yard field goal; 12:11

UM — Samori Toure, 8-yard pass from Dalton Sneed (Brandon Purdy kick); 8:30

UM — Sneed, 2-yard run (Purdy kick); 3:33

USD — Kody Case, 3-yard pass from Austin Simmons (Lorber kick); 0:45

UM — Proudy, 43-yard field goal; 0:01

Third Quarter

UM — Samuel Akem, 43-yard pass from Sneed (Purdy kick); 11:20

USD — Case, 9-yard pass from Simmons (Lorber kick); 7:47

UM — Marcus Knight, 6-yard pass from Sneed (Purdy kick); 2:54

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