Being the team that lost to the team that snapped a 39-game conference losing streak wasn't fun. Neither was the long and dead-silent bus ride home between Crookston and Marshall.
The Southwest Minnesota State football team's embarrassing defeat against Minnesota-Crookston last weekend came on the heels of a fourth-quarter meltdown in a loss to the University of Mary. As the Mustangs head into today's road contest against unbeaten and 25th-ranked Sioux Falls, the wide-eyed optimism that surrounded the squad at the start of the season is all but gone.
Sitting at 1-3 on the season and heading into a stretch where they will face three teams with a combined record of 11-1, the Mustangs know this is an important juncture in their season. They can either band together and fight their way forward, or splinter and see things get ugly in a hurry.
"We had an in-team meeting to sort out all the negatives and just try to bring the team back together and come back as a brotherhood, as we should every week," said SMSU running back Warren Matthews, a senior captain for the Mustangs. "We're just looking, this week, to come out and play football like we've been doing for years and just have fun, just win some more games."
Winning football games has been a struggle for the Mustangs in recent years. The team has had just one winning season since 2000. SMSU's opponent for tonight's 6:30 p.m. game at Bob Young Field in Sioux Falls, S.D., is all about winning.
NAIA champions in 1996, 2006, 2008 and 2009 - all undefeated seasons - the Cougars developed a tradition of excellence and a reputation of domination at their level of football. Now in its first year as a member of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference and a fully-fledged Division II football program, USF has shown that taking a step up hasn't required taking a step back.
"They hold themselves to pretty high standards," said Jed Stugart, who is in his third year as head coach of the Cougars. "We don't celebrate moral victories around here. Last year we were in a transition year and not eligible for the playoffs. We played teams like Northwest Missouri and Washburn and McNeese State and the best talent that we could possibly play on our schedule so our guys could really get an understanding of where they need to be in a D-II program.
"I think, historically, this team has always taken winning very seriously. I think that when they walk onto the field, it doesn't matter who they play, they expect to win."
In 2009, the Cougars took the field against Division I program North Dakota and earned one of the biggest upsets in school history, winning 28-13 in Grand Forks, N.D. In their first game as a member of the NSIC this season, they took on one of the favorites to win the conference in St. Cloud State and earned a wire-to-wire 32-19 victory over the Huskies.
Averaging 35 points per game and allowing just 13.5 ppg, the Cougars are strong on both sides of the ball.
On offense, the receiving duo of Carrington Hanna (a converted quarterback) and Jeremiah Oates (a big target at 6-foot-3) have been combined for 43 receptions and 724 yards through their first four games. Quarterback Taylor Perkins has thrown for 889 yards and 11 touchdowns with just two interceptions.
Defensively, Sioux Falls leads the conference in opponents' third-down conversion percentage at 22.7 percent. SMSU, while in the top half of the NSIC in total offense (391.8 yards per game) has been one of the worst teams in the league in converting on third down (31.9 percent). That's a concern for Mustang head coach Cory Sauter.
"The main thing is on first or second down, just getting something," Sauter said. "I don't care if it's one yard, let's get something and not be second-and-10 or second-and-11. If we can get one to two yards on first down, one to two yards on second down, now we're third-and-6, so at least you have a chance. But if it's third-and-eight or third-and-10, that'll be a long night."
Another must for the Mustangs is limiting turnovers. Last week against Minnesota-Crookston, SMSU put itself in a big hole with two interceptions from Tyler Peschong and a fumble by receiver Tyler Erickson (out this week with a broken arm) in the first half. Down 33-14 through three quarters, the Mustangs' fourth quarter rally fell short in a 33-28 loss.
With the poor play of SMSU's run defense in the game (the Mustangs gave up 232 rushing yards to UMC running back Richard Haley), the performance of the Mustangs' own backfield was overshadowed. Matthews had 139 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries, and running back Gannon Moore had 69 yards rushing to go along with a career-high 10 catches for 118 yards.
The bus ride home from that game was a depressing one, but the Mustangs say the week of practice leading up to today's game has been upbeat, with high energy and guys having fun. Now they look to carry that attitude to Bob Young Field and have some fun against the Cougars.
"I told them, 'Hey, if you don't enjoy playing football, don't be out here,'" Sauter said. "Everybody just seems to be locked in and enjoying the challenge. We've never beaten a ranked team before, so we have everything to gain and nothing to lose, and that's fun. We enjoy that challenge."