The Cougars' 42-20 victory over Minot State featured some rough spots and gave coach Jed Stugart and his staff plenty of stuff to focus on in preparation for what figures to be a more challenging game next week against Bemidji State.
Though USF (3-0, 3-0 NSIC) was in command in the fourth quarter against the outmanned Beavers (0-3, 0-3 NSIC), it sputtered in the first quarter and led just 17-7 at the half.
The defining moment of the game took place with 3:39 left in the third quarter, when Minot State quarterback Zac Cunha threw a 15-yard touchdown strike that left USF clinging to a four-point edge. But John Tidwell blocked the ensuing extra point and defensive back Robert Virgil returned it the other way for a two-point conversion to give USF the 26-20 lead.
Six minutes later, USF quarterback Taylor Perkins threw his fourth touchdown pass of the game and the Cougars were well on their way to winning their third straight NSIC contest.
USF is now 4-1 all-time versus Minot State. The Cougars were forced to punt on their first three possessions and the Beavers drew first blood on a 64-yard touchdown bomb from Cunha to Wayne Peters.
USF responded with a five play, 71-yard drive that was capped off by a 50-yard strike from Perkins to senior wide receiver Jeremiah Oates. Perkins found Oates later in the second quarter for a 7-yard score.
"I challenged Jeremiah in the second quarter and told him that we needed a spark," Stugart said. "We were waiting around a little too long but got things rolling a little bit in the second half."
The Cougars held the Beavers scoreless in the second quarter and senior kicker Braden Wieking tacked on a field goal to put the Cougars in front 17-7 at the half.
It was rinse and repeat to start the second half, as Perkins connected for a third time with Oates, this time a 38-yard score to give USF a 24-7 lead.
Staring at third-and-10 on the ensuing drive, Cunha launched a ball off his back foot that was hauled in by junior Gyyn Borel, who took it to the endzone to cut the Cougars' lead to 24-14.
After three straight punts, Minot State started their 10th drive at the USF 46 with 5:38 left in the third quarter. USF appeared to hold the Beavers to a field goal try as a third-and-one pass fell incomplete, but a pass interference call on the play kept the drive alive. Minot State took advantage as Cunha connected with Porter for a 15-yard touchdown pass and set the stage for Virgil's ensuing heroics on the Beavers' extra point attempt.
The Cougars were penalized 13 times in the game for a total of 145 yards.
USF opened the fourth quarter with a four-play, 50-yard drive that ended with Perkins connecting with Carrington Hanna, his other favorite target, for a 37-yard score.
Wieking later converted a 32-yard chip shot which stands as the 40th converted field goal of his career. He is now 40-for-58 (.689) in his Cougar career.
Senior Brett Jensen's first career interception return for a touchdown created the final margin of victory.
"That was great," Stugart said. "He sat on it and put himself in a great position; Juice is a kid that's been a fixture there and he rises to the occasion all the time."
Perkins finished the day 19-for-36 for 287 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He also picked up 46 yards with his feet. Oates finished the game with 126 yards on six catches with three touchdowns.
The Orangevale (Calif.) native has now hauled in 15 receiving touchdowns in 12 career starts. Hanna caught five balls for 88 yard and a score.
USF's offensive line provided time for 371 yards of total offense and kept Perkins' jersey clean as the Beavers did not record a sack.
Virgil was the Cougars' defensive standout; filling the stat sheet with a team-high 10 tackles (five solo), one interception, two broken up passes and a defensive PAT. He now has eight interceptions in his last nine games and has picked off a pass in five straight contests.
Matt White and Eric Anderson each posted seven tackles. Ryan Adams found Zac Cunha twice in the backfield and finished with two sacks and six tackles.
A Cougar defense that has held opponents to a 15.5% third down conversion rate (third-best in NCAAD-II) limited the Beavers to a conversion percentage of 28% (5-for-18).
Stugart also spoke highly of the play of his special teams.
"I typically don't relay messages to the special teams, but the guys knew there were some things in the paper this week that put a question mark on them and they responded well today," Stugart said. "We're going to need this kind of performance later in the season, perhaps as soon as next week."
The Cougars return to Sioux Falls for a two-game homestand. USF will host Bemidji State on Saturday, Sept. 22, with kickoff slated for 12 p.m.
Courtesy: USF Athletics