Watson makes short return as USF earns first win of season

SIOUX FALLS – The University of Sioux Falls Football Team (1-1, 1-1 NSIC South) bounced back from a season-opening loss in a big way with a 34-12 win over Winona State (1-1, 1-1 NSIC South) in a key NSIC South Division contest on Military Appreciation Day at Bob Young Field before 1,577 in attendance.

Junior defensive end Joey Wehrkamp led a dominating defensive effort in which the Cougars held the highly productive Warriors to just 228 yards on 57 plays and allowed just 49 yards rushing on 20 carries. It was the least number of rushing yards USF has allowed since a 39-21 win over SMSU in 2018 when the Mustangs gained just 38 yards on 25 carries.

Wehrkamp said the key for USF, which is now 19-1 in home season openers since 2000, was staying focused and everyone doing their jobs.

"I think we showed our potential as a defense. Everybody did their jobs to the best of their abilities," said Wehrkamp, a junior from Sioux Falls who had a sack and tackle for loss against the Warriors. "We flew around and got our hats on them on nearly every play. I think it was just about making plays at all levels."

The defense, directed by coordinator Nick Benedetto, showed up big against WSU, which had accumulated 546 yards against Wayne State (37-20 win) in the opener. On this day, USF came up big with two sacks and three interceptions which included picks from seniors Ryan Nieman, Tucker Stout and junior Nate Durfee. Senior linebacker Brody Grantham led USF with 7.5 tackles while registering one of five tackles for loss while Stout added five tackles to his interception and a tackle for loss.

In snapping a two-game losing streak to the Warriors, the Cougars received contributions from across the board, as noted by USF Head Coach Jon Anderson.

"I was incredibly proud of our team. For the guys to put together a solid effort on offense, defense and special teams was particularly pleasing for the coaching staff," said Anderson, who is now 17-8 at USF with a 17-7 league mark and his first win against WSU. "It was a big effort and from a team that showed a lot of heart, plus physicality and toughness," he said.

Led by senior quarterback Caden Walters and redshirt freshman Thuro Reisdorfer, USF's offense, directed by coordinator Jim Chapin, generated 435 yards on 82 plays or 5.3 yards per play. Walters completed 17-of-26 passes for 215 yards with a TD and added nine carries for a career-high 70 yards rushing. Walters has thrown for 200 yards in back-to-back games and has just one interception with two passing TDs.

Reisfordofer, who stepped in for All-American Gabriel Watson in the first half, accumulated 82 yards on 20 carries with his first two career rushing TDs. He now has 33 totes for 174 yards and two TDs this season.

Also on offense, USF had a career-best effort from junior wideout Karnell Collier, who hauled in seven receptions for 108 yards as he had his first career 100-yard receiving game. Senior Nate Johnson had four catches for 52 yards plus 56 yards on punt returns with a career-best 46-yard return.

Special teams, directed by coordinator Joe Ford, had a big day for USF. Junior placekicker Daniel Esparza connected on all four of his extra points along with field goals of 17 and a career-best 50 yards. Punter Thomas Chapin averaged 40.7 yards per kick with a long of 53 yards. Plus, USF continually came up huge on returns. Aside from Johnson's 46-yard return on a punt, Reisdorfer had a 41-yard kickoff return he nearly broke for bigger yards.

Game Breakdown –
After USF turned the ball over on an interception on the opening possession, the defense came up huge as Nieman's end zone interception off WSU's Owen Burke and subsequent return of 51 yards set the stage for USF's first touchdown. With 6:29 to play in the first quarter, All-American Gabriel Watson scored on a two-yard TD run to cap a 9-play, 49-yard scoring drive for a 7-0 USF lead. Watson, who had nine carries for 16 yards and a TD, had 15 yards on four carries while Walters had a 20-yard run and Reisdorfer a 21-yard jaunt.

WSU's defense put the Warriors back in the game with a fumble recovery in the end zone. However, on the extra point try, USF blocked the kick to maintain a lead they would never relinquish.

On this day when the Warriors made a charge at USF, the Cougars had the answer. After the defensive score by WSU, the Cougars took off on an 11-play, 58-scoring drive which used up 4:34 of the clock and gave USF a 14-6 lead. Walters threw a three-yard TD pass to senior tight end Clint Sigg, who made an acrobatic play and catch. Sigg, who had four catches for 36 yards, basically caught the ball with one hand as he has played the first two games with his left hand in a cast.

Big plays on the drive was an 11 yard run by Winston Maxwell, who had seven carries for 25 yards, 10-yard jaunt by Reisdorfer and a 20-yard reception by Collier which moved the ball to the three-yard line and set up the Walters-Sigg connection.

Then, just before halftime Esparza add a 17-yard field goal after USF drove within inches of the goal in the final 2:22 of the first half. In the 12-play, 79-yard drive, USF had another 20-yard reception to Collier and a 15-yard reception by Sigg.

Neither team moved the ball on their opening possessions of the second half. With 8:18 to play, WSU tightened up the game as Burke, who was 16-of-37 for 179 yards and three interceptions, threw a 21-yard TD pass to Jake Ballie, who finished with five catches for 60 yards. However, WSU was unable to convert a two-point try as USF held a 17-12 lead.

Late in the third quarter, the Cougars had a game-defining if not deciding 95-yard drive which included 14 plays and used up 6:29 of the clock. On a third and five from their own 10-yard line, Walters connected with Johnson on an eight-yard pass to keep the drive alive. Then he and Collier connected for 13 yards followed by two Reisdorfer runs which counted 11 total yards. Walters hit Johnson for 23 yards and Darrion Conrad for 11 to move the ball to the WSU 20-yard line. On a crucial third down play, Maxwell gained three yards for a first down. After Walters ran for 10 yards, Reisdorfer scored his first career TD with 11:37 to play in the game for a 24-12 lead.

USF was able to put the game on ice when the defense stepped up as Durfee's pick off set up the Cougars deep in WSU territory with 8:45 to play. With a hot hand, Walters found Sigg for six yards and Collier for 22 before Reisdorfer added his second TD of the game and his career. With Esparza's extra point, USF had a 31-12 lead.

The Cougars capped off the scoring at the 4:17 mark when Esparza nailed a personal and career-best 50-yard field goal in the north end zone. His field goal is the longest at USF since Stu Vanden Heuvel connected on a 50-yard try on Sept. 9, 2017 also at Bob Young Field in the second game of that season against Northern State (37-7 win).

Next for USF will be a road NSIC contest with Southwest Minnesota State at 1 pm., Saturday, Sept. 21.