By Austin Cannon
The zero on the scoreboard could’ve been chiseled in stone and it wouldn’t have mattered. Play after play, quarter after quarter it was as unchanged as the “Drake” inscribed next to it.
For most of Saturday’s game against South Dakota, the Coyotes kept Drake on its end of the field. When the Bulldogs did cross the 50, drives would stall, field goals would miss or a turnover would occur as if on cue.
A week before Pioneer Football League play begins, Drake was shut out 52-0 at the DakotaDome. It was the first time the Bulldogs were held scoreless since they were blanked by North Dakota in the 2011 season opener.
“A loss is a loss, a win is a win, but when it’s done you’ve got to start getting ready for the next one,” head coach Rick Fox said.
Quarterback Andy Rice didn’t start because of an injury he sustained during the North Dakota game. In his place, senior Cody Thibault got his first career start.
Thibault had previously appeared in games sparingly to spell Rice. He took first-team snaps during practice leading up to South Dakota, but the game did not go according to plan.
Thibault began 0-for-6, throwing two interceptions before he completed a pass. His first pick led to USD’s first score after Jacob Warner returned it to the Drake 1. Trevor Bouma then dived in for the one-yard touchdown.
Throughout the first half, Thibault was inaccurate and ineffective. Two potential interceptions were dropped by defenders and he sometimes missed open receivers. At halftime, Thibault had completed 4 of 22 passes for 46 yards. Pressure might have played a role.
“What you try to do is get guys to relax,” Fox said. “That sounds so easy, but when you’re in that spot, especially at that position, it’s really difficult to do.”
Fox said the decision was made Thursday that Rice would sit. Fox did not disclose Rice’s injury but said his quarterback’s status is “day-to-day.”
Bouma reached the end zone two more times in the first half. He, quarterback Ryan Saeger and fellow running backs Michael Fredrick and Nate Gunn combined to rush for 296 yards.
Because of the turnovers and decent punt returns, the Coyotes benefited from excellent field position in the first half. Of its five scoring drives, USD’s average starting position was inside the Drake 28. Saeger iced the game before halftime, finding Nick Meyer for a 35-yard touchdown pass and a 31-0 lead.
“When you’re backed up, now your playbook gets real small, there’s not as many things you can do and that’s what happened,” Fox said. “We weren’t able to get the ball out of our territory.”
Thibault got his feet under him in the second half, completing 10 of 15 for 101 yards, and Drake had three clear opportunities to get on the board.
Now trailing 38-0, Thibault led the Bulldogs 61 yards to the USD 14. Josh Lee came out to attempt the 31-yard field goal, but he pushed it right. Still scoreless.
At the end of the quarter, USD decided to punt at its own 27. Gary Scott Jr. was untouched, skirting the edge to block Miles Bergner’s punt. Eric Saubert recovered the ball at the USD 10.
On the very next play, Scott fumbled as he was taken to the turf by a pair of defenders. Inevitably, the Coyotes recovered.
Fredrick and Gunn both ran for the first touchdowns of their careers in the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs had one more chance to score with another Lee attempt from 31 yards, but it was blocked. Poor execution had doomed the Bulldogs, making it look as though they were destined not to score.
In all, Drake (1-2) only put up 282 yards of total offense and was forced to punt eight times, mostly a product of only converting 32 percent of third downs.
Drake wasn’t able to replicate its defense that kept it in the game against North Dakota. Bouma bruised his way to 116 yards on the ground. Saeger averaged 9.6 yards per carry, effectively bouncing to the outside on read-options. The Drake defensive end would bite on the fake and Saeger would scamper for first downs.
While the Coyotes enjoyed a solid performance from their quarterback, it remains uncertain who will start at the position for Drake come Saturday. If Rice can’t go, Thibault will again step in.
“He’s a very talented quarterback, and he’s going to help us win football games,” Fox said. “I have no doubt about that.”
Perhaps the sole comfort of the blowout loss is that it happened at the hands of a non-PFL foe. Now the focus shifts to the league opener against Stetson at Drake Stadium on Saturday, and the Bulldogs have a lot to put behind them.
“You’ve got to flush it,” Fox said. “You’ve got to learn from it and flush it and move forward.”