TERRE HAUTE —
If Youngstown State’s football team was a house, the best way to describe it would be that it has good bones.
The Penguins don’t have eye-popping curb appeal with a spectacular player or a flashy system, but the structure YSU tries to build its program on is sound. YSU likes to run the ball first and has a dependable, veteran quarterback if they go to the air. On the defensive side, they stop the run and make teams throw.
Solid, but unspectacular, the Penguins are hoping their sturdy foundation can take them into the Football Championship Subdivisions playoffs for the first time since 2006.
Indiana State, who hosts YSU in today’s homecoming contest, is obviously seeking the same goal. Today’s 3 p.m. contest will go a long way to determine which team has a better chance of making the 24-team FCS playoff field.
For ISU (1-3) to be successful, it must put the Penguins in a situation where they’re forced to deviate from their core gameplan, but that won’t be easy. The Penguins are not prone to hurting themselves.
Quarterback Kurt Hess is a four-year starter and is one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the MVFC. Hess has thrown 10 touchdown passes against just two interceptions. He’s thrown for 1,026 yards overall.
“Hess is a really good player. He’s effective, he’s accurate and he makes good decisions. The fact that he knows what to expect coming in here is a real positive for them,” ISU coach Mike Sanford said.
Hess is solid, but YSU likes to run the ball and the Penguins have unveiled freshman Martin Ruiz this season after years of reliance on Jamaine Cook, who got a long look from the Cleveland Browns in the NFL preseason. Ruiz has rushed for 350 yards and seven touchdowns.
Another sign of YSU’s good bones? The Penguins (4-1, 1-0) don’t hurt themselves. They are ranked fourth in the nation with just 3.6 penalties per game and had just one in a 28-27 win at Southern Illinois last Saturday. The Penguins had just one turnover against the Salukis.
YSU’s most obvious deficiency plays to one of the Sycamores’ strengths. YSU is ranked 105th in the nation in passing yards allowed at 270.4 per game. SIU quarterback Kory Faulkner threw for 348 yards in a losing effort last week.
“We’ve seen statistically what they’ve given up and what they haven’t. We’re excited to compete against their secondary and against their defense,” said ISU wide receiver Demory Lawshe, who might play today after suffering a frightful concussion in the second quarter at Tennessee Tech last week.
“Even though they’ve given up some yards passing, you never know what a team is going to put out there. They could be giving us a whole new look. We’re excited to attack deep and keep our identity as an offense,” he added.
While YSU’s pass defense struggles offer an enticing statistic for ISU to drink in, it could come from a poisoned chalice if ISU can’t protect quarterback Mike Perish. The Sycamores were inconsistent in keeping Tennessee Tech’s pass rush away from Perish last week — something that didn’t likely escape the Penguins’ notice. YSU has eight quarterbacks sacks so far this season.
“They are a physical team up front with good pass rushers and they do a nice job with their blitz package. We have to be able to block. In general, we have to be a team on normal downs where they don’t know if we’re throwing or running,” Sanford said.
YSU loomed large in ISU’s failure to gain a FCS playoff bid in 2012. Needing just one victory entering its season finale at Stambaugh Stadium, the Sycamores fizzled in a 27-6 loss. It turned out to be the last game of Trent Miles’ coaching tenure.
“It’s definitely still in our minds. That one hurt us. We had to win it to make the playoffs. It’s a redemption game and a little payback. We’re definitely looking forward to it,” said ISU linebacker Kendall Walker, who leads the Sycamores with 28 tackles.
The rematch with YSU is just one layer of subtext. It’s ISU’s conference opener — most MVFC teams started conference play last week — and it’s the first time Homecoming coincided with ISU’s conference opener since 1997.
“It’s a lot to live up to, but it’s exciting. It’s what you want. You want your first conference game to be Homecoming in front of a big crowd. You want to set the tone on the field for the conference. Why not do it during Homecoming?” Lawshe said.