YOUNGSTOWN - Believe it or not, Youngstown State University has never defeated the University of Dayton in football.
That's right. The Flyers, not known for their football, are 9-0 all time against the Penguins. Granted, the two teams haven't met since 1977, well before YSU enjoyed its run of success, but the unblemished mark by Dayton doesn't sit well with the Penguins, who square off with the Flyers at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Stambaugh Stadium.
"A lot of past football alumni have made it a point to say something to me about Dayton," YSU coach Eric Wolford said. "That continues to re-emphasize that every game is important, but this one, in particular, is really important for some of the people that have come before us, which obviously is important to this program."
Dayton will have its work cut out for it to make it 10-0. The Penguins have won 17 straight home openers and return a team many expect to contend for a playoff berth, something Dayton has never done since joining Division I-AA in 1991 (now known as the Football Championship Subdivision). In fact, no team in the Pioneer Football League - the Flyers' conference - has reached the postseason in its 21-year history. That streak will change in 2013 as the PFL champion will now receive an automatic bid into the expanded 24-team playoff.
Dayton, which has won the conference a league-high 11 times, boasts a trio of first-team all-conference players on defense - end Pat Dowd, linebacker Colin Monnier and cornerback Kyle Sebetic. Dowd made 8.5 sacks last year, Monnier paced the team with 92 tackles, including 12 for loss, and Sebetic led the entire FCS with 18 passes defended (15 breakups, three interceptions). The Flyers, who finished 6-5 in 2012, have eight starters returning on defense.
That will pose a challenge for YSU starting quarterback Kurt Hess, a Dayton native who graduated from Chaminade-Juluenne High School.
"It's a good defense - a disciplined defense," Hess said of Dayton. "But if we stay to our Ps and Qs and execute, we're going to be effective."
The Flyers are led by a powerful ground game on offense, averaging 198.7 yards rushing per game last year. Running backs Connor Kacsor (6-0, 190) and Robert Washington (5-10, 180) will be key figures for the Penguins' defense, as will senior quarterback Will Bardo, a two-year starter. He completed 152 of 306 passes for 1,687 yards, eight touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also ran for 405 yards and three TDs.
"They like to spread you out," said Wolford of the Flyers' offense. "They'll run some zone-read stuff, some counters, some speed option. They'll throw the ball vertical. I'd expect them to do some up-tempo stuff - that seems to be a trend around college football - and they've done a little bit of that in the past."
The Penguins, coming off a 7-4 season in 2012, will counter with Hess and talented players at the skill positions. Three starters return at wide receiver (Christian Bryan, Andrew Williams and Michael Wheary). Andre Stubbs, who played extensively at wide out and out of the backfield last year, could start over Williams. Senior Torrian Pace will fill in for the injured Demond Hymes (ankle) at running back. Pace (5-1, 235) is a bruising running back, while fellow senior Adaris Bellamy (5-10, 215) adds agility.
The defense returns six starters and is led by senior captain and linebacker Dom Rich. Teven and Travis Williams will start alongside Rich, and cornerback Julius Childs and safety Donald D'Alesio, both returning starters as well, will man the secondary.
"We're 0-9 against Dayton, and that's something that's going to be in the back of our minds when we go out there," Rich said. "Some people may think that (Dayton is a lesser opponent), but as a team, these fifth-year seniors have to make sure everyone is on the same page. We're 0-9 against these guys. We have to come out with a statement and get this W to start the season on the right note."