The Youngstown State University football team used a lot of fuel while traveling to Southern Illinois University and Indiana State University the past two weeks, winning both contests along the way.
Whether it was a one-hour plane ride or a two-day bus trip, the Penguins were fueled every time. This week, they host Illinois State University with their gas tank empty. They will pump the nozzle come Saturday.
“Our team feeds off the crowd. It’s kind of like our fuel for the engine,” head coach Eric Wolford said.
The 16th-ranked Penguins (5-1, 2-0) defeated the Sycamores, 35-24, on Saturday for their third consecutive victory. Two freshmen stood out from the pack, and both earned Missouri Valley Football Conference’s Players of the Week.
First, tailback Martin Ruiz took YSU’s first play from scrimmage 44 yards into the end zone. He finished with 141 rushing yards and three touchdowns, the second time this season he rushed for at least three scores.
“He’s fun to play with. He’s fun to watch,” senior Kurt Hess said. “He’s got a lot of tools. He’s a very fast running back, he’s very strong — he’s got great balance and great vision. I only get one year with him, so I’m going to enjoy every game that I have with him.”
On the other side, safety Jameel Smith shined defensively. He returned an interception 95 yards into the end zone late in the first quarter that gave YSU a 14-3 lead.
“He’s an exciting player,” senior cornerback Dale Peterman said. “He’s got real good speed. He just has an attitude when we go on the practice field every day, and we just work. He’s got that work ethic that we all should have. I think he’s got a bright career ahead of him.”
While the freshmen shined, Hess passed Tom Zetts for two more records. Hess’ 164 yards passing gives him 7,887 for his career. He also had 180 total yards that gives him 8,457 for his career. Senior receiver Jelani Berassa was the first to congratulate the senior quarterback.
“I told him a lot was because of him, playmakers like him,” Hess said. “I’ve thrown a lot to Jelani Berassa, Christian Bryan [and] Dominique Barnes. I think it’s something that’s really cool, but I think I have a lot left to prove.”
Hess owns other school records with 64 career touchdown passes, 21 200-yard passing games, 202.2 passing yards per game, a 142.72 passer rating and touchdowns responsible with 72.
Hess also threw a touchdown against ISU, and it went to junior Christian Bryan — his first this season. It was also Bryan’s first score since YSU lost at South Dakota State University, 41-28, on Oct. 27.
“I just want to do anything I can to help the team win,” Bryan said. “I really don’t care about scoring touchdowns, but it does feel good to score. The most important thing is if I score touchdowns, I know I’m helping the team win. It gives me a lot of confidence.”
For the Redbirds (2-3, 1-1), they head into Stambaugh Stadium with momentum. They defeated Western Illinois University, 35-21, on Saturday.
The Redbirds have scored 128 points while allowing 183. Offensively, they are averaging 232.4 passing yards and 117 rushing yards per game.
“This week, we just got to be prepared to make plays while the ball’s in the air because they have some deep threats,” Peterman said. “We just got to be ready this week for the downfield throws.”
The Penguins fell to ISU, 35-28, last year after leading 28-7 at one point. The all-time series is tied at 11-11, and the home team has won the past five contests.
Wolford is 1-2 in his YSU career against the Redbirds. The lone win came on Sept. 17, 2011 in a 34-27 victory. In his first season, YSU lost 41-39 on Nov. 6, 2010. The Redbirds threw a game-winning 40-yard touchdown pass with 0.7 seconds remaining.
Throughout those first three games, Wolford learned that the Penguins must play every second if they want to win.
“It’ll be a 60-minute football game,” Wolford said. “You got to play all four quarters — you can’t play one half, you can’t play three quarters, you can’t play 58 or 59 minutes like that one time. That was the day I tried to jump out of the plane. Unfortunately, it didn’t take off yet.
“Tailgate lot will be revving and roaring. You know, 7 o’clock start time at Stambaugh Stadium against a good team? That’s the place to be.”