Trailing by 13 points in the fourth quarter at Southern Illinois University on Saturday, Youngstown State University proved that they would never go down.
Whether it was Kurt Hess, senior quarterback, throwing darts or running to keep the game alive, or one defensive stop after another, the Penguins bounced back and won, 28-27 — the program’s fourth-best comeback since 2000.
“That was obviously a good win for us, but that was a long time ago,” head coach Eric Wolford said. “We talk to our players around here all the time. Are you spending time here or are you investing? We’ve got to invest today. What are you sacrificing today to make sure you’ll have a good feeling on Saturday? Today’s a workday.”
The Penguins (4-1, 1-0) look to ride that momentum into Indiana State University on Saturday, the second consecutive conference road game for YSU.
When mentioning the Sycamores (1-3, 0-0), the first thing that pops to mind is senior running back Shakir Bell. He missed two games this season due to a separated shoulder. Yet, in the two games he’s played, Bell has rushed for 314 yards, an average of 194.5 yards per game.
He ran for 201 yards on 25 carries and scored two touchdowns (one rushing and one receiving) in a 38-37 loss at Tennessee Tech University on Saturday. Bell is also 228 yards from breaking the school record of 4,335 yards set by Vincent Allen from 1973-77.
“Offensively, we all know who Mr. Bell is,” Wolford said. “I think the thing with Bell is that he’s obviously very explosive. He’s hard to find behind those big offensive linemen. When he gets to the second level, he’s very good at making people miss in the open space.”
Bell struggled against the Penguins last year. He rushed 18 times for 54 yards and no touchdowns in a 27-6 YSU victory on Nov. 17, the season finale.
“I’m sure he has a chip on his shoulder from last year, because we held him,” Dom Rich , senior linebacker, said. “I’m sure we’re going to get his best shot this year. He’s shifty, he’s fast and he works hard.”
For the Penguins, their leading rusher is still freshman tailback Martin Ruiz. YSU rushed for 132 yards on Saturday against a stout SIU defense, and Ruiz had 87, including 46 yards in the fourth quarter. He has 350 rushing yards overall and eight touchdowns (seven rushing) this year.
“He’s definitely somebody that I’m getting more and more comfortable with,” Hess said. “He’s a great young back, and I’m glad I’m with him.”
Ruiz’s performance against the Salukis helped fool the defense with play action, which allowed Hess to throw for 258 yards and four touchdowns. He was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s Offensive Player of the Week. He also rushed five times for 27 yards.
“Kurt’s playing at a really high level, and that’s what we expect,” Wolford said. “If we can give him some time, and if we run the right route, he can do some things.”
Along with Hess, junior safety Donald D’Alesio was named the MVFC’s Defensive Player of the Week.
With five school records already, Hess can break two — possibly three — more on Saturday. He stands six passing yards shy of Tom Zetts’ record of 7,728 yards.
Hess is also 21 yards away from Zetts’ career total offensive yards of 8,277. The third possibility is that Hess is 36 completions away from breaking another record set by Zetts (654).
Wolford was hesitant in saying that Hess could become the best quarterback in YSU history and will leave the decision up to the media.
“You guys are the judges. You guys hold that little hammer that you get to bang around,” he said. “We’ll see where he is at the end of the year. Records and all that kinds of stuff — he’ll tell you that that stuff doesn’t matter.
“Who cares about records? That’s something you get to talk about when you’re older with your kids. Right now it’s about preparing today to beat Indiana State.”