YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio —
So … who wants to talk about Indiana State’s Football Championship Subdivision hopes?
Not ISU coach Trent Miles.
“That’s not spoken out here. We don’t speak that word out here. The only thing we talk about is playing Youngstown State,” Miles said.
OK, but the truth is that playoffs don’t have to be spoken about when it comes to the 18th-ranked Sycamores. In effect, ISU is in one-and-done playoff mode already.
A win over the Penguins today is necessary for ISU to be eligible for the FCS playoffs. A victory would give ISU an 8-3 overall record, but one of those wins was against Division II Quincy, so the seven-win Division I threshold needed to be considered for playoff consideration still needs to be reached.
If ISU wins, then all of the myriad FCS playoff at-large scenarios come into play, but the Sycamores have to win first. “One game at a time” is a cliché, but a cliché rooted in truth, and it’s an attitude the Sycamores have taken to heart all season.
“I think we’ve really bought into the fact that you can’t have a great season unless you take each game at a time. You can’t focus on anything past the next game or the next play,” ISU quarterback Mike Perish said.
ISU spent its bye week getting healthy — the Sycamores have had few game-threatening injuries this season, but have had a lot of players banged up — and segued into normal game preparation for YSU this week.
“We’ve had great focus, good execution and good tempo. Guys want to go play,” Miles said.
The 6-4 Penguins also harbor playoff hopes — though they are faint.
YSU was ranked in the top five early in October, but a 48-7 loss at North Dakota State — it occurred a week before ISU’s win there — sent the Penguins into a deep funk. YSU subsequently lost at Illinois State, at home to Southern Illinois and at South Dakota State to fall back into the Missouri Valley Football Conference pack.
YSU has since recovered with a narrow 13-10 home win over struggling South Dakota and a 31-7 win at Western Illinois.
The question is which YSU will show up today. The Penguins that thrashed Pittsburgh 31-17 and started the season 4-0? Or the Penguins who went 0-4 against the MVFC’s elite in October?
The Penguins have the weapons to beat any team. Quarterback Kurt Hess has thrown for 1,865 yards and 13 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. Running back Jamaine Cook is ranked 3rd in the MVFC and 13th in the nation with 115 rushing yards per game.
But for all of the firepower YSU might have, ISU’s defense has achieved at a level where it’s a question of whether the Sycamores can be broken rather than whether a team can break the Sycamores.
ISU is ranked second in the nation in scoring defense (13 per game), is third in pass efficiency defense, and is sixth in total defense, having given up 286.6 yards per game.
“With our defense, if we hear we’re going to play a great offense? That gives us that much more excitement. We take that as a challenge and we want to perform that much greater to take on that challenge,” ISU safety Larry King said.
YSU’s defense has been stout against the run, ranked sixth in the nation with a miserly 98.4 yards per game conceded. YSU’s pass defense is a different story. The Penguins rank 58th in pass defense and 102nd in pass efficiency defense.
ISU’s offensive strength — namely, Shakir Bell and his 1,421 rushing yards — don’t match the Penguins’ defensive weaknesses. ISU is rated 108th in the nation in passing offense at 141 yards per game.
But that doesn’t mean YSU doesn’t respect what ISU can do. The Sycamores have won two in a row over the Penguins, the only winning streak ISU has ever had against YSU.
“Everyone knows they’re a good football team. From what I’ve seen on film, I’ve seen some of the top players in the league on that Indiana State team,” YSU coach Eric Wolford said.
A win over the Penguins could also give ISU a share of the MVFC championship. A win would give ISU a 6-2 MVFC mark, its best record in an eight-game league schedule.
Wide receiver Donald Spencer and safety Mark Sewall are the only Sycamores’ regulars expected to miss today’s game.