FARGO, N.D. - It should have been a sign of things to come when Youngstown State running back Jamaine Cook fumbled the ball on the first offensive play of the day for the Penguins against the No. 1 North Dakota State Bison.
While many people might have thought the out-of-the-ordinary fumble could mean a rough day ahead for the Penguins, no one could have predicted the nightmare of a game that was to follow.
The Penguins were crushed by the Bison, 48-7, at the Fargodome on Saturday afternoon. The loss was the Penguins' first of the year (4-1), first conference loss (1-1) and the worst loss ever for YSU in a Missouri Valley Football Conference game.
The Associated Press
Youngstown State's Jamaine Cook runs the ball past North Dakota State's Carlton Littlejohn during an NCAA college football game Saturday at the Fargodome in Fargo, N.D.
"Obviously, this is very disappointing, but it's one game though," YSU coach Eric Wolford said. "At the end of the day, we said at the beginning of the week, this game was going to come down to turnovers and being able to convert on third down. Obviously, we didn't do very well in either area. We played a good football team today."
The Bison wasted no time getting on the board after the Cook fumble. Recovering it at the YSU 31, it only took quarterback Brock Jensen six plays to march NDSU in for the first touchdown of the day, a 1-yard score by running back John Crockett.
YSU answered back on the next series. In a drive that was classic Penguin football, mixing running and passing evenly with some nice play calling, YSU was able to chew up more than 6 minutes off the clock before quarterback Kurt Hess found tight end Carson Sharbaugh in the end zone to tie the game at 7.
That was the closest the Penguins came to having a lead.
The Bison retook the lead five plays into their next drive, when Jensen connected with Zack Vraa for a 46-yard, flea-flicker touchdown - a play Jensen said after the game the Bison had been saving for a couple weeks to use at just the right time.
That touchdown was a blow to the YSU defense, as the secondary had been burned by a play very similar to that against Albany. But what was about to happen was an attack that no one could have foreseen.
Hess was leading the Penguins down the field, trying to tie the game at 14, and it looked as if the Penguins were going to get some sort of points on the board, having got down to the NDSU 16-yard line. On third-and-6, Hess dropped back and heaved the ball toward the end zone, only to have it picked off by NDSU's Marcus Williams, who swiftly ran the interception 98 yards for a Bison touchdown.
Now, instead of the game being tied at 14, or even cut to 14-10, the Bison have a 21-7 lead on the Penguins midway through the second quarter.
"It's a play I can't make," Hess said. "It's something we talked about during the week, and we prepared for I just made the wrong decision and I take full blame. Even though I did throw the pick, I should have tackled him. It's a decision I can't make and a decision I don't usually make."
The interception was Hess' first of the season. His second came shortly after.
With 1:39 left in the half, and YSU down 28-7 after another Crockett 1-yard touchdown, Hess was trying to get a score before the break - knowing his team wasn't receiving the ball to start the half. But on his first throw of the drive, Bison linebacker Carlton Littlejohn intercepted the pass. NDSU used that to add another seven points before the half, as it went into the locker room with a 35-7 lead.
"We let this game out of control very early on because of self-inflicted turnovers," Wolford said. "The first play on offense, we fumble the ball we haven't fumbled the ball all year. We throw two picks we can't pass protect worth a dang those are serious issues."
While Hess admitted to making bad decisions, the NDSU defense was stifling. Hess was sacked once and hurried eight times in the game.
"They stayed on their stuff," Hess said. "They are a fundamentally sound and physical team. We just gave them too much offensively. I think we gave them 21 points after the fumble and the two interceptions. Those are things you can't do against good teams like that because they are going to capitalize."
The Bison added two field goals and returned a punt for a touchdown in the second half for the final score.
Saturday's game was the lowest output of yardage YSU has had all season. On the day, the Penguins netted 211 yards of total offense. The Penguins rushed for 94 yards, which is a season low, but it was the most the Bison had given up all season.
On the other side, Jensen was doing whatever he wanted to on offense. The junior passed for 200 yards on 15-of-23 passing. He was sacked once, hurried once and went another game without an interception.
He was complemented by the powerful running of Crockett. The sophomore, getting his first start of the season, carried the ball 25 times for 103 yards.
"Their offense, I take nothing away from them, they were a good football team and they had everything going their way today," defensive lineman Aronde Stanton said. "Scheme wise, they did some things we weren't prepared for. But I'm pretty sure we'll see them down the road, which is a good thing."
While the loss puts a dent in YSU's unbeaten season, Wolford said by no means is it going to define the year. Because next week the Penguins have to bounce back and travel to Illinois State, which pits two teams with a 4-1 mark against each other.
"We can't let North Dakota State beat us twice," Wolford said. "We have the 24-hour rule, win or loss, we move on. And most everything I saw today is correctable, and that's the encouraging thing. But we need to come back with an edge to us, because we go back on the road and play a very good Illinois State team."