The 12th-ranked Younstown State University Football (3-1) team begins conference play this weekend as they travel to Springfield, Missouri to take on the 23rd-ranked Missouri State University Bears.
The game is being referred to as a must-win by the Penguins coaches and players, due to the strength of the Missouri Valley Conference this season. The conference has eight teams ranked in the top 25 in both the coaches and sports network polls, and the conference is a combined 23-1 against non-conference opponents.
“I think every conference game there needs to be a sense of urgency. Every game matters. When you want to go where we want to go every game is vital. Every play is crucial,” Head coach Eric Wolford said. “Every conference game you got to treat it like a must-win situation.”
Nose tackle Octavius Brown said that every game going forward is a must-win if the Penguins are going to reach the playoffs.
“We can’t lose one game in conference play because it makes a difference. If we lose one to two games, then it’s up to the committee and that hasn’t went our way in the last couple of years so we have to win,” Brown said.
The Penguins are riding a three-game win streak in which they have dominated their opponents by a total of 130-60. This week will be much tougher, though, as Wolford said. He said Missouri State will be the most talented team the Penguins have faced — including the University of Illinois, a team the Penguins lost to in their season opener.
“As a whole body of work they’re a good football team,” Wolford said. “Take away some plays in that Oklahoma State game and the way they played in the second half; you can see they’re a good football team.”
Missouri State boasts a strong offense, which includes one of most lethal quarterback -receiver combos in all of the FCS — consisting of quarterback Kierra Harris and wide receiver Julian Burton. Harris leads the Missouri Valley in passing efficiency (172.3) and passing yards per attempt (9.49). His favorite target is Burton, who leads the Missouri Valley with 412 receiving yards.
Penguins defensive end Derek Rivers stressed that for the Penguins defense to be successful they must contain Harris, who he described as the fastest quarterback they have faced.
“If we can contain the quarterback, and keep him contained, no balls should be able to get to that receiver,” Rivers said. “He’s got receiver speed; if you ask me, he’s really fast.”
A key factor in Saturday’s contest will be the turnover margin. Missouri State comes in averaging 2.3 takeaways per game, while YSU has only turned the ball over two times through four games and have yet to throw an interception.
“They have a lot of playmakers,” senior tight end Nate Adams said. “They have guys that like to fly to the football and we’re going to have to execute at the top of our game to compete with these guys.”
The YSU offense is coming off a 567-yard performance, including five rushers of over 59 yards, against St. Francis University two weeks ago. The Penguins top two running backs Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb were both removed from the St. Francis game with injuries but are expected to return this week.
Kickoff for Saturday’s game against Missouri is set for 3 p.m.