YOUNGSTOWN - Youngstown State coach Eric Wolford stopped short of calling today's game against Northern Iowa the biggest of his two years with the Penguins.
But that's exactly what it is. The Penguins and Panthers will meet at 5 today at the UNI-Dome, where YSU hasn't won since 1999. The Penguins haven't beaten UNI at all since 2000 and are just 6-19 all-time against the Panthers.
YSU's losing streak against its Missouri Valley Football Conference rival has to end at some point, right?
No time like the present, because there is more at stake than simply trying to end UNI's dominance in the series. The Penguins are trying to regain elite status in the Football Championship Subdivision and there two ways to accomplish that:
1. Beat good teams.
2. Make the playoffs.
A victory today in Cedar Falls, Iowa would be Wolford's signature win to date with YSU and it would keep the Penguins' FCS playoff hopes alive.
In fact, YSU's players and coaches say they're approaching November just the way the Penguins used to in the 1990s when Jim Tressel was their coach. Tressel always likened November's regular-season games to unofficial playoff games.
The message? Don't win November games, you won't have to worry about the playoffs.
"What's at stake? The playoffs," YSU nose tackle Aronde Stanton. "We know if we don't win this game and any other games down the line, we might not make the playoffs."
Winning at the UNI-Dome will take the best performance of the season from Stanton and his teammates on a defense that is young at linebacker and in the secondary.
The Penguins could catch a break if Panthers quarterback?Tirrell?Rennie can't play. The 2010 MVFC Offensive Player of the Year left last week's 27-19 loss to North Dakota State with injuries to his ankle, knee and thumb.
Internet-fueled speculation had Rennie's ankle injury actually being a torn Achilles' tendon.
UNI coach?Mark?Farley addressed Rennie's health during a news conference this week.
"His body is beat up," Farley said. "Tirrell is questionable right now going into this week, but he's been questionable before going into a week. ... Tirrell tends to come around and hopefully he will again this week."
Wolford expects Rennie - not freshman backup Jared Lanpher -?will start.
"He'll play, there is no question,"?Wolford said. "You can't get caught up in all the hype."
With or without Rennie on the field, today would be a good day for the Penguins' young defense to grow up.