Penguins head coach Eric Wolford warned at Tuesday’s press conference that Western Illinois University – although entering with a losing record – would be a tough challenge.
He wasn’t lying.
The Leathernecks gave Youngstown State University all it could handle, but the Penguins still escaped with a 24-14 victory Saturday afternoon at Stambaugh Stadium.
“It was good for our team to have a little bit of a roller coaster win,” Wolford said. “You guys were sitting here like ‘yeah Wolf’s trying to build [WIU] up.’ One of these days you’ll believe me.”
The Penguins (7-1) got on the board first when freshman running back Martin Ruiz found the end zone on a 60-yard run midway through the first quarter. Ruiz, who finished with 199 yards on 21 carries, had 91 rush yards in the first half alone.
“I wouldn’t have any yards if it wasn’t for my lineman – so a big shout out to them,” Ruiz said. “My receivers were blocking good too.”
Western Illinois (3-5) fought back though, tying the game on quarterback Trenton Norvell’s 1-yard TD run.
Still, YSU took a 14-7 lead into the half.
Donald D’Alesio recovered a fumble on the Leatherneck’s 9-yard line after WIU punter Nathan Knuffman couldn’t handle the snap. Kurt Hess then found Christian Bryant two plays later for a 7-yard touchdown with 5:28 left in the first half.
“Western Illinois came in with a great game plan, but we responded the way we needed to,” Penguins tight end Nate Adams said.
On the Leatherneck’s first possession of the third quarter, they went 99 yards in 12 plays, tying the game at 14 when Norvell connected with Lance Lenor for a 9-yard score.
But YSU regained a 17-14 lead with 11:34 remaining in the game on Joey Cejudo’s 33-yard field goal.
The Penguins then put the game away on a 5-yard TD pass from Hess to Nate Adams with only 2:34 remaining. That score followed a missed 40-yard field goal by WIU’s Knuffman on the previous possession.
“Obviously a great moment,” Adams said of his diving catch. “The line blocked for Kurt and he just got it up and put it in just the right spot. So real excited about that play for sure.”
Hess finished the day completing only 7 of 18 passes for 47 yards and two touchdowns. Bryant was his top receiver with three catches for 31 yards.
An unsung hero for YSU, punter Nick Liste had five punts for 217 yards, including three inside the 20-yard line.
“He was huge once again,” Wolford said. “Possibly the team MVP in my book. He made some big time kicks.”
The Penguins will have a bye next week before heading to the University of South Dakota on Nov. 2.