CHALLENGE ACCEPTED: Penguins prepare for season’s toughest game

Youngstown State University head football coach Eric Wolford yells during a game against Duquesne University earlier this season. Wolford leads the Penguins against North Dakota State University on Saturday at Stambaugh Stadium. Photo by Dustin Livesay/ The Jambar.

Youngstown State University head football coach Eric Wolford yells during a game against Duquesne University earlier this season. Wolford leads the Penguins against North Dakota State University on Saturday at Stambaugh Stadium. Photo by Dustin Livesay/ The Jambar.

It’s finally here. The game everybody at Youngstown State University has been waiting for since the schedule was released.

The eighth-ranked Penguins welcome No. 1 and back-to-back defending NCAA Football Championship Subdivision National Champion North Dakota State University into Stambaugh Stadium on Saturday.

“It’s exciting,” Eric Wolford, YSU head coach, said. “How can you not be excited about that? It’s November, and we’re 8-2. Isn’t that what everybody wanted? So, here we are.”

Anything can happen during the 60-minute contest. But Wolford said the game will come down to a few big plays.

“This game will come down to four or five plays,” he said. “The thing is, today [Tuesday], we don’t know which four or five plays those are going to be. That’s what it’s going to be about.”

The Penguins (8-2, 5-1 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference) return home after three weeks away, including their bye week.

YSU fell at the University of Northern Iowa, 22-20, on Nov. 9. UNI kicked a game-winning field goal with four seconds left. Many mishaps from the Penguins were self-inflicted, including a blocked punt, nine penalties and a lost fumble by freshman Martin Ruiz on a kickoff return.

“Those things are all correctable, much like a little kid who touches a hot stove. You need to learn from those mistakes,” Wolford said. “Even with the blocked punt, even with the fumble on the kickoff, we still had every opportunity to win that game.”

On the same day, the Bison (9-0, 6-0) defeated Illinois State University at home, 28-10. A win over YSU clinches their third straight conference title. If the Penguins win the game on Saturday, they take over first place with the tiebreaker.

“The good thing is we still have everything in front of us. I think we’re going to be all right,” senior defensive end Kyle Sirl said.

NDSU has not played at the Ice Castle since Wolford’s first season in 2010. YSU fell at North Dakota, 48-7, a season ago in Fargo.

“That game just got out of hand. Everything that could go wrong did for us,” Chris Elkins, senior center, said.

Overall, the Penguins have won four of the seven contests played. Fifteen total points have decided in the three games played at YSU.

One big matchup will feature each team’s quarterback. YSU is led by Kurt Hess, senior captain, while senior Brock Jensen leads the Bison.

“The whole conference is loaded with great quarterbacks,” Sirl said. “Jensen is obviously in control of the No. 1 team, so he manages the games very well. We’re going to have to make sure that we get at him a little bit and make him do some things extra well.”

Jensen has thrown for 1,646 yards, 20 touchdowns and four interceptions this season. Hess has 2,038 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and four interceptions along with four rushing touchdowns.

Another big matchup will be YSU’s run game versus the Bison defense. NDSU is allowing 83.4 rushing yards per contest. Ruiz is averaging 99.4 rushing yards per game and sophomore running back Jody Webb averaging 40 per game.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to play with great pad level and sustain blocks,” Wolford said. “You’ve got to be patient, too. It’s okay to get a four to five-yard gain.

“You’re not always going to have those 50 or 60 yarders. We’ve got to stay out of those third and long situations. That’s a key component to this football game, I think, for both teams.”

Kickoff is set for 2:00 p.m. Saturday will also feature Jim Tressel, former YSU coach, being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“We’re excited to have him back in town and hopefully [he will] bring some of his mojo for us,” Wolford said. “We’ll get him to sprinkle some of that around.”

The forecast calls for 56 degrees and no precipitation according to The Weather Channel. The game can also be seen on ESPN3 and heard on 570 WKBN.

“It is what it is,” Wolford said. “This is what you come to Youngstown State for. It’s on the line on Saturday.”

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