MARSHALL - The homecoming history isn't comforting for Southwest Minnesota State football fans (their team has won just one homecoming contest since 2000). Neither is the Mustangs' history against 2012 homecoming opponent Wayne State (seven straight losses).
The recent history isn't promising either, as SMSU heads into today's 5 p.m. contest at Mattke Field coming off three straight defeats. But following a 41-22 loss to Sioux Falls last week in which they were within striking distance until late in the fourth quarter, the Mustang players and coaches feel their 1-4 team is on the verge of a big win, and knocking off the 4-1 Wildcats on homecoming would classify as such.
"We all met together as a team and talked about what we wanted to do and how we wanted to move forward in the season," said senior receiver Abe Kos, who had set career-highs in receptions (seven) and yards (71) against USF. "We're just gonna stick together and keep pushing each other. That's what we did in the Sioux Falls game and that's what we're hoping to do the rest of the season.
"We're so close, just one or two plays here and there. One of these times, it's gonna work out in our favor."
A stop on a third-and-eight play against USF would have allowed the Mustangs to get the ball back and have a chance to take the lead early in the fourth quarter against the 25th-ranked Cougars, but senior quarterback Taylor Perkins scrambled 10 yards for a first down. It's opportunities like those that the Mustangs must capitalize on to win games, especially against top-tier teams like USF, Wayne State and next week's opponent Minnesota State-Mankato.
"It's just a situation where we have to come together, and when plays are there to be made, you've got to make them. Make your fair share of them," SMSU head coach Cory Sauter said. "You're not going to make every one, but it's such a fine line between winning and losing in this conference, especially when you're not favored to win, you've got to make sure that if anything happens in your favor, you have to take advantage of it. We did that, for the most part, (against USF) and we have to continue that."
The Mustangs converted on eight of 17 third downs last week, their best effort of the season, so they can see that those key plays are being made more frequently, at least offensively. That offense will be tested yet again today against a WSC team that ranks 14th in the nation in rushing defense (90.0 yards per game), 15th in scoring defense (16.0 ppg) and 18th in sacks (17 total).
The Wildcats have arguably the best defensive player in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, and one of the best in the nation, in defensive end Richard Daniel. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound senior has used his uncanny speedy and athleticism to pile up seven sacks, six forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two blocked kicks through his team's first five games.
"Some guys have good statistics and they're OK players," Sauter said. "He's a guy that has great statistics and he's an even better player because every single play he's in the mix and has the ability to force a turnover, has the ability to get a sack, a negative-yardage play.
"He's by far the biggest problem that we're going to have to solve during the game."
Daniel had two sacks and two forced fumbles in last year's matchup against the Mustangs, a 52-29 WSC victory. SMSU was tied with the Wildcats at 21 at halftime of the game, but committed five of seven total turnovers in the second half to seal their fate.
With a player as dominant as Daniel on the team, Sauter said the Wildcats don't have to take many risks defensively and can get plenty of pressure on opposing quarterbacks with just a four-man rush.
The Mustangs will try to keep the Wildcat defense guessing by distributing the ball to several different players. Last week, SMSU had nine different players catch a pass from quarterback Tyler Peschong, which was the second time this season the team reached that total.
"Everyone can be a playmaker. Tyler's done a great job of mixing it around and throwing it to everyone," said SMSU tight end Cody Condon, who had six catches for 63 yards and a touchdown last week. "It makes it harder for the defense to prepare for. The coaches and Tyler do a great job keeping everyone happy."
Running backs Warren Matthews and Gannon Moore have also been hitting their stride and have the team's rushing average up to 156.4 yards per game. After scoring a touchdown last week for the 29th of his career, Moore is just one trip to the end zone away from taking sole possession of the school's career rushing touchdowns record.
The Mustangs want to get Moore the record today. More importantly, they want to deliver fans at the Regional Event Center a rare homecoming win and continue to grow together as a team.
"It's tough losing ballgames," Condon said. "Everyone wants to win. Our focus is just staying together. We always break down with 'family' because that's what we are. A lot of us aren't anywhere close to home, so these are the guys that we're with almost 100 percent of the time.
"We just have to stick together and good things will happen."