YOUNGSTOWN - When the Youngstown State Penguins visited Fargo, N.D. last season, it was a team still trying to grasp its identity.
The Penguins were 5-4 when they faced North Dakota State on Nov. 12. They had won their share of games against some easy opponents, a few closely contested games, but had lost in some tight matchups in which they could have pulled out the victory. It was a team that had the talent, but couldn't seem to pull out the big-game win.
That is until YSU left the Fargodome with the 27-24 victory over the eventual FCS National Champions - giving the Bison their only loss of the 2011 season.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Led by Youngstown State’s Nick DeKraker (45) the Youngstown State football team run on to the field during their game against Northern Iowa. This week, the Penguins travel to Fargo, N.D., to take on the No. 1-ranked North Dakota State Bison. Game time is at 2 p.m.
This week, a different Penguin team will be taking the field in Fargo. The now proven and tested No. 3 Penguins will be trying to take down the No. 1 Bison for the second straight year on their home field. Kickoff is at 2 p.m. EST.
"We definitely have more confidence as a football team and confidence playing together," YSU quarterback Kurt Hess said. "Last year we were still trying to find our identity. We were still working things out, hitting and missing on some big things. This year, we have been able to gel and we've been able to have that extra year to become a football team."
The case can be made that YSU snuck into the Fargodome last season and might have flown under the radar of the Bison. Not this year. The Penguins are fully aware that the Bison are ready for them and will be playing with a chip on their shoulder.
BYE WEEK SUCCESS: The Penguins have won six of their last eight games following a bye week dating back to 1998. The only two losses after bye weeks came last season against South Dakota State and in 2009 against Southern Illinois.
DOWN TO THE WIRE: The six-game history between North Dakota State and Youngstown State has had its share of exciting finishes. The six games the two teams have played have come down to a total of 27 points, with eight points being the largest margin of victory. That game was won by YSU, 34-24, in 2008.
The two times the Penguins have played in the Fargodome - both YSU victories - have been determined by a total of seven points.
Youngstown State leads the series 4-2.
STREAKING: YSU has won four straight games for the first time since 2006. During that season, the Penguins won five straight, including two in the postseason. Since 1987, YSU has made the playoffs in each year it has posted a winning streak of at least four games.
The Penguins are looking to go 5-0 to start the season for the first time since 2000.
SWITCHING THINGS AROUND: The only changes on the depth chart this week come on the defensive side of the ball. As of Tuesday, Kyle Sirl and and Ali Cheaib will be getting the starts. Sirl, who will be starting over Luis Quinones, has had a productive season, recording two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss.
Cheaib, who was involved in the final pass breakup sealing the victory over UNI, will be getting the nod Teven Williams. Also in the starting lineup at linebacker is leading tackler Travis Williams. He's been battling for the starting role with Dubem "Bam" Nwadiogbu.
WATCH THEM LIVE: The YSU-NDSU game will be televised live on WFMJ this Saturday. Kickoff is at 2 p.m. EST.
"They can say that we messed up their perfect season," defensive lineman Aronde Stanton said. "They could have been undefeated. But in the end, this week it comes down to motivating their team. And saying, 'Well, these guys came in and beat you here last year.' So they are going to come out hyped up and we just have to go in with the same mindset that we have every week - no matter who we are playing, and play our game. And in the end, hopefully it's enough to come out with a 'W.' "
And that's just one of the storylines that will be building as the game approaches. But the most nationally recognized plot is that this game pits No. 1 against No. 3 - with the winner taking a huge leap into the front of the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
But the Penguins say that doesn't matter. All that matters is that this is another week, against another opponent.
"We are going into it like it's a regular game," Stanton said. "We can't play into the hype. It's just a regular game, just like we were playing Valparaiso. We prepare the same, regardless of who we are playing."