By Dan Hiner
Last season the Youngstown State University football team traveled to Fargo, North Dakota, needing a win to claim one of the final spots in the Football Championship Subdivision playoff.
YSU lost the final game of the season against North Dakota State University 38-14 and barely missed the playoffs. Almost a year later, the Bison are standing in between the Penguins and the postseason.
Both teams are coming off blowout victories last week. YSU (5-4, 3-3 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference) is coming of a 47-7 win over Missouri State University, and NDSU (7-2, 5-1 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference) beat Western Illinois University 59-7.
NDSU had to replace its quarterback Carson Wentz after he broke his wrist back in October. Wentz, who is one of the top NFL prospect at quarterback, was replaced by redshirt freshman Easton Stick.
“He’s a very good football player and they play very well around him,” YSU head coach Bo Pelini said. “He understands the offense. I think he manages it very well. I think he stepped in and led that offense extremely well. They play well around him. It’s a team game and he’s done his part, and the guys around him have done their part. They haven’t taken a step back.”
Stick has started the past three games and has become a duel-threat for the Bison offense. He has thrown for 461 yards and rushed for 376 yards this season.
YSU will have to contain the Bison’s running backs. YSU’s defense ranks fifth in the conference, allowing 161.7 rushing yards per game. The Penguins have struggled against duel-threat quarterbacks this season. YSU has allowed 238 rushing yards, and three touchdowns to duel-threat quarterbacks this season.
Since Stick took over the quarterback position, the Bison offense has become a force on the ground. In the past three games, NDSU has run for 971 yards, averaging 324 yards per game, including 331 yards last week against the Leathernecks.
“They’ve been able to manhandle a couple of other teams that we’ve been able to watch on film,” defensive tackle Steve Zaborsky said. “Especially playing d-tackle on the inside, my main objective is to not get moved off the rock and really do what we’ve been doing — letting the backers run free and hold them up front.”
The Penguins play in one of the most competitive conferences in all of college football. For Pelini, NDSU is “the next game”, and the Bison are just another talented team on the schedule.
“I think they’re talented. I don’t know if they’re that much more talented than the next guy,” Pelini said. “Illinois State was a talented team. You could go right down the list; there were some talented teams. I think they’re extremely well coached, the have a system that they believe in and the kids play the right way. They have a very strong culture about their program right now, and how they go about their business. They’re a formidable opponent…they’re a good football team.”
With all of NDSU’s success over the past four years, they have come to expect the best from every team they’ve played. The Penguins are not different. YSU players are excited for a chance to play the Bison at Stambaugh Stadium and with Saturday being senior night; the players are chomping at the bit to get an opportunity to test themselves against one of the top teams in the nation.
“We take every game week-by-week, but NDSU is always a fun game to play,” guard Matt Bell said. “They’re one of the top teams in the nation. If you don’t want to play one of the top teams in the nation, then you shouldn’t be playing the game at all.”