By Jeff Brown
The #25 Youngstown State University football team was able to keep their playoff hopes alive after a nail-biting 23-21 victory over #23 Western Illinois University.
YSU (4-4, 2-3 in Missouri Valley Football Conference) held WIU quarterback Trenton Norvell to just 8-29 attempts with one touchdown and one interception. Norvell faced constant pressure from the Penguins front seven all afternoon. Norvell was sacked four times and hit seven other times.
“Our guys up front played like grown men,” YSU head coach Bo Pelini said. “We were able to do a lot with our four-man rush and then mix in a couple pressures here and there. Forget about just rushing the passer, I’m talking about in the run game.”
The Penguins held the leathernecks to only 106 yards rushing on 39 attempts; only 2.7 yards per carry.
Sophomore linebacker Lee Wright was all over the field for the Penguins. Wright recorded 14 tackles and one sack, with 10 of his tackles coming in the first half. The last time a YSU player had over 11 or more tackles in a game was Travis Williams against Southern Illinois University on October 13, 2012.
The Penguins defense was particularly big on third downs throughout the game — allowing WIU (4-4, 3-2 in MVFC) to convert three of 16 third down conversions.
“That’s an area that’s going to go a long way to defining you as a football team, how you do on third down. I thought we were pretty good on third down defensively today,” Pelini said.
YSU continued to implement a two-quarterback system with Hunter Wells and Ricky Davis splitting snaps. Wells completed 16-28 for 152 yards and interception, while Davis provided a spark to the offense — completing both of his passes for 52 yards, including a 48-yard touchdown pass to receiver Andre Stubbs.
“We’ll mix in as need be. I think he [Davis] is a definite guy that can bring somethings to the table for us offensively,” Pelini said.
Stubbs was the favorite target of both Wells and Davis catching six passes for 129 and a touchdown. Pelini said the reps between the two quarterbacks will be reevaluated later in the season.
The running back tandem of Jody Webb and Martin Ruiz were once again critical factors to the team’s victory. Webb carried nine times for 72 yards and touchdown, but it was Ruiz who did the dirty work for the Penguins.
Ruiz ran the ball 29 times for 77 yards and added five catches for seven yards. The averages were not high for Ruiz, but he was clutch when it mattered most, picking up crucial first downs late in the fourth quarter.
“Running wise, every time I got the ball I was just thinking get to the first down marker,” Ruiz said. “It was physical every play.”
Pelini was pleased with the way YSU was able to kill the clock on their second to last possession.
“Hunter made a couple of good third down throws and Martin made a couple of big runs,” Pelini said. “I thought the whole team stepped up. They knew we were going to run the football. We used a lot of clock on that drive. That was big”
Freshmen kicker Zak Kennedy went 3-4 with his only miss hitting the left upright on YSU’s first possession of the game. Kennedy kicked the game winner with just over two minutes left in the game.
“Our kickers stepped up today,” Pelini said. “I thought special teams wise, that was our best total effort, and maybe our best total effort as a football team. Our most consistent effort.”
The win keeps the Penguins playoff hopes alive as they head back home next weekend to take on Missouri State University (1-7, 0-5).
“I don’t worry about all of that [making playoffs] — it was the next game,” Pelini said. “For where we are and the culture we’re trying to build, I thought this was a real big step in the right direction.”