As the final seconds ticked off the clock in a 41-38 win over Minnesota, South Dakota head football coach Ed Meierkort's Coyotes had done the improbable and pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the college football season.
After Coyote quarterback Dante Warren took a knee, flipped the ball to the officials, and began celebrating with his teammates, Meierkort grabbed the top of his head and, in this sanguine moment, offered up a "holy cow I can't believe it" expression.
While some coaches may have taken this win in stride, the victory over the Gophers of the Big Ten wasn't just another game or another win for Meierkort and USD. It was a surreal moment of accomplishment both for him and the program he leads.
Heading into the matchup with the Gophers, South Dakota was a huge underdog and in a lower division, but none of that mattered when the Coyotes found their groove with critical conversions on offense in a tense fourth quarter.
As a result, USD opened the eyes across all of college football, except in the home offices of Gopherland where despite USD's herculean effort, Gopher coach Tim Brewster has given little credit to Meierkort's boys. Instead Brewster said he was disappointed in his team, yet maintaining his program was in better shape than when he took over from Glen Mason in 2007. Brewster is a coach on the hot seat and one that faces a 2-0 USC team led by Lane Kiffin, who was a finalist for the Gophers job when Brewster was tapped. But, this story of accomplishment bypasses Brewster and his seemingly self-esteem issues with the Gopher fan base. It is about a Coyote team that took down a Big Ten foe.
To me, a former Coyote SID and one with two degrees from USD, the story is about my beloved Coyotes, who just last week took a 38-7 pummeling from Central Florida, but turned everything around against Minnesota.
In the days leading up to Gopher encounter, I thought, at least in the back of my mind, that Minnesota wasn't a dominant team by any means, especially after struggling with a Middle Tennessee team it should have dominated last week. So, I thought the Coyotes could give the Gophers a run at least for a quarter or maybe a half. But to win it outright on the Gophers' home turf in TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, was far-fetched. It is now real.
The impact of the Coyote win reverberates throughout Coyote nation. I suspect that many alums are like me in that since Saturday, I have watched the broadcast twice on my DVR. I may watch it a few more times. It really amps up my Coyotism.
Reflecting on the game, I can't help but note a few heroes in this football drama, including Warren, who was making just his second career start. Will Powell, a sophomore receiver from O'Gorman High School in Sioux Falls, had eight catches, 156 yards and a pair of TDs, including one for 61 yards to open the second half. There was Dustin Nowotny, who had a crucial catch in the first quarter that set up a score and then the clinching grab from Warren on a third and four with less than two minutes to play. Cole Zwiefelhofer, a true freshman punter, averaged 53.7 yards on three punts, including a 60-yard boot in the first quarter. Former Gopher Shane Potter was huge on defense with 10 tackles. The rest of the defense, while giving up 38 points for the second straight week, forced two fumbles by Gopher quarterback Adam Weber that stopped potential scoring drives Yet in reality, this was a team win - every Coyote player and coach on that field contributed, whether special teams, offense or defense.
Still, it is Warren that is center stage. Through the creative genius of offensive coordinator Wesley Beschorner, Warren, utilizing every football instinct in his being, orchestrated one of the greatest all-time offensive performances in Coyote football history.
To many of us, Warren looked like a mirror image of Beschorner, who baffled North Central Conference defenses during USD's record-breaking 2005 season. From rollouts to screens, hitches to posts, Warren and the Coyotes moved up and down the field with the end result of touchdowns. Interestingly, they scored six TDs, not settling once for field goals.
In his fourth year in the program, Warren has learned wisely, picking up the nuances of the quarterback position from Beschorner and future Coyote Hall of Famer Noah Shepard, who broke nearly all of Beschorner's and USD passing marks before his Coyote career ended a year ago. Lessons learned showed on this one spectacular day.
Warren accounted for five TDs, three by pass, and made plays late that kept the Coyotes' dream alive.
From my perspective, his biggest moment was a 36-yard TD gallop on a third and one rollout with 7:30 to play in the fourth quarter. Minnesota took the ensuing kickoff and moved into scoring position where a Weber fumble gave USD the ball. However, this Gophers defense rose up and stopped the Coyotes and then Weber and his offensive mates moved swiftly down the field for a TD that cut the deficit to three points.
However, Brewster decided to kickoff to the Coyotes. And, on this Saturday, that was to be a problem. Instead of running the ball and winding down the clock, the USD braintrust - Meierkort and Beschorner - opted for passes on second and third down with Novotny's critical catch on 3rd and four, sending Gopher patrons home with one of their most devastating losses.
As a result of his effort, Warren was nominated by ESPN for its Impact Player of the Week after totaling 433 yards in total offense, including 352 yards passing (21-30) and and 81 yards rushing.
After it was over and all the celebrating left to the team in the locker room and bus, and to alumni and others in Minneapolis bars, the question about whether this win is the greatest moment in Coyote sports began to take shape. That question, I suspect, still is being debated by alumni, friends and media. I don't know.
My personal belief is that at this moment stands tall in USD athletic history, because USD recorded its signature win over a Big Ten team just three years into the transition of this program to FCS.
As the debate goes on, I think other moments in Coyote history deserve attention here.
~In 1986, head coach Dave Triplett's Coyotes advanced to the NCAA DII title game with a wild 42-28 win over Troy State in the DakotaDome before 10,000 rabid fans. In that same season, the Coyotes recorded a 26-23 come-from-behind victory over favored UC-Davis on the road when quarterback Scott Jones connected with Kelly Southwick for a TD late in the game. Interestingly, the quarterback for UC-Davis was Chris Peterson, who now coaches the third-ranked Boise State team.
~ The 1912 team ranks as one of the U's greatest teams. It was a squad that finished 5-1 and defeated Minnesota, 10-0; losing only at Michigan, 7-6.
~ B.H. Morrison's 1899 team went 4-1-2 and defeated Nebraska, 6-5.
~ Several times USD battle the likes of Nebraska and Michigan State to draws. In 1916, the Coyotes tied Michigan State, 3-3. They tied Nebraska 6-6 in 1909 and 0-0 in 1914.
- The win over Nebraska-Omaha, 21-3, on regional TV in 1978 that clinched the NCC title still ranks high.
~ In 2005, USD dominated favored and seventh-ranked North Dakota, 42-30, to win the NCC crown in 2005 (tied for the title). It was a game that Meierkort called his biggest win as a coach. Orchestrating that win was Beschorner, then a quarterback.
I think Meierkort will call this win over Gophers the biggest of his career but that victory in 2005 will always be important. Both wins will go into the memory bank of his and Coyote nation as significant, program-defining wins.
From my perspective, comparing great moments is a little difficult. I think what the Coyotes victory represents is that the magical nature of sport is everpresent. That an underdog bringing down a big Goliath, is a story that capitivates our attention wherever it happens.