VERMILLION — How can the South Dakota football team start the final stretch of its season on the right foot?
Aside from figuring out ways to stop the opposing offense, a good place to start might be with handing the ball to Kai Henry.
It’s worked out pretty well lately.
The junior is the first USD running back to eclipse 100 yards in two straight games since 2015, and could with a good game today (Saturday) against Youngstown State, become the first Coyote since 2007 to do it in three straight.
In other words, Henry has been one of the few bright spots for a USD squad that has dropped three games in a row and comes into today’s Missouri Valley showdown at the DakotaDome with a 3-6 record.
“He’s really seeing things very well right now,” head coach Bob Nielson said in his weekly radio show.
“Our young offensive line continues to get better, and it showed again with our ability to run the football effectively. It’s good to see Kai running hard.”
Henry, a native of Florida, followed up a career-best 116-yard effort two weeks ago with a 145-outburst (on a career-high 30 carries) in last Saturday’s loss at Western Illinois.
The USD ground game also surpassed 300 yards last week for the second time this season.
While Nielson pointed to his offense’s ability to continually move the ball as a bright spot for the season, he did say that missed opportunities have loomed large.
“We’ve been moving the football very well and we’ve been scoring points, but there are times where we’ve definitely left some points on the table that have cost us in a couple games,” Nielson said.
It’s not been the offense, however, that has cost the Coyotes.
It’s the defense.
Opposing offenses have averaged 446 yards and 33 points on USD, and last Saturday previously-winless Western Illinois scored a touchdown in the final minute to beat the Coyotes.
South Dakota began the conference season by out-scoring Indiana State and Missouri State 83-10, but has since allowed 42, 48 and 38 points.
“I knew that was going to be an issue going into the year, with some of our youth at linebacker and at positions in the secondary,” Nielson said.
Those young guys are, though, getting some valuable reps, he added.
“We’re just playing really inconsistent right now,” Nielson said. “We have a good game and then follow that with a bad game.”
Working in USD’s favor for today’s game, though, is the opposing quarterback.
Youngstown State quarterback Nathan Mays attempted two passes last Saturday before leaving with a season-ending ankle injury. Freshman Mark Waid and sophomore Joe Craycraft each completed 5-of-10 passes, and Craycraft is expected to start today.
The Penguins began the season 4-0, but have lost four of five, including a 56-17 home defeat to top-ranked North Dakota State a week ago.
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