CARBONDALE, Ill. - The Youngstown State football team saved itself from a crucial loss in the Missouri Valley Conference opener against Southern Illinois, and the Penguins may have saved their season in the process.
YSU scored two touchdowns in the final 10 minutes to rally from a 13-point, fourth-quarter deficit and win 28-27 over Southern Illinois on Saturday night at Saluki Stadium.
The Penguins (4-1 overall, 1-0 MVC) have now won four straight conference openers and three of the past four over Southern Illinois (2-3, 0-1). It was the largest fourth-quarter comeback for the program since rallying from a 28-14 deficit to Hofstra in 2000.
"The thing we always talk about is, in every football game there's always going to be adversity," YSU coach Eric Wolford said. "There's going to be highs and lows. Obviously in the first half, we had some lows there ... but we kept getting after it.
"That was a big win for us," he added. "Road games are hard to win in this conference. They have a great environment here in Carbondale. We were just fortunate to have some things fall our way."
The win was especially important because YSU still has to play the top three ranked teams in the MVC.
Saturday was a good start though.
Southern Illinois left itself vulnerable to a Penguin comeback when Thomas Kinney missed the extra point kick following a 2-yard touchdown pass from Kory Faulkner to LaSteven McKinney at the end of the second quarter. Faulkner, who threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns and also led the team in rushing with 71 yards, was the catalyst in the Salukis taking a 27-14 halftime lead. The teams combined for 51 points and 525 yards in the first half, but the defenses took over in the final two quarters. Fortunately for the Penguins, they finally broke through in the fourth quarter.
On second-and-7 from the SIU 15, Youngstown State quarterback Kurt Hess found Nate Adams for a touchdown to get the Penguins within 27-21. After allowing one first down, YSU's defense stopped the Salukis, forcing a punt from their own 42-yard line.
The Penguins took over at their own 17 with 7:57 left on the clock and Hess led a game-winning, 83-yard drive.
With 6:56 remaining, Martin Ruiz picked up 19 yards for a first down to keep the drive alive.
Then in a do-or-die play on a fourth-and-6 from the SIU 27, Hess scrambled to keep the play going and ran to the sideline, diving head first to the 20 to pick up a first down.
The Penguins pounded the ball at the SIU defense and eventually had a fourth-and-goal from the SIU 1-yard line. Hess found Carson Sharbaugh in the back corner of the end zone to tie the game. Joey Cejudo's conversion kick gave the Penguins a 28-27 lead with 1:55 remaining.
"Kurt was outstanding," Wolford said. "That was a great play by him on the (touchdowns pass). We were able to run the ball a little bit in the red zone, which obviously helped us out a little bit. It loosened them up a little bit, and that was a great throw and catch."
The Salukis advanced to the YSU 41-yard line on their final drive, but MyCole Pruitt fumbled after catching a Faulkner pass, and Donald D'Alesio pounced on the ball to seal the come-from-behind victory.
Hess finished 25-of-37 for 258 yards and four scores while Kory Faulkner was 28-of-43 for 348 yards and four TDs.
Each team had long drives to open the game.
Southern Illinois opened the contest with a 13-play, 73-yard march to go on top 7-0 on Faulkner's first touchdown pass of the night. Faulkner found Malcolm Agnew from seven yards out to give the Salukis the lead at the 8:30 mark of the first quarter.
The Penguins answered back when Hess threw an 18-yard touchdown toss to Stubbs with 1:24 remaining in the opening quarter. YSU used an impressive 15-play, 81-yard drive to knot the game at seven.
After holding the Salukis on a fourth-and-short play from the YSU 45, YSU took its first lead of the contest when Hess connected with Stubbs for a two-yard score at the 10:33 mark of the second quarter.
But the Salukis caught fire scoring the final 20 points of the quarter to take a 27-14 halftime lead. The final score came with 0:09 seconds left, but a missed extra point left the lead at 13.
Faulkner completed 21-of-28 passes for 278 yards and four touchdowns in the first half while Hess was 11-of-15 for 154 yards and two scores. SIU had 332 yards of total offense while the Guins had 193.
Both teams were scoreless in the third quarter with SIU gaining 62 yards to YSU's 55.
The Penguins return to action next Saturday at Indiana State. Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. at Memorial Stadium in Terre Haute, Ind.