YOUNGSTOWN - The weather might have rained on Youngstown State's homecoming parade Saturday, but it sure didn't dampen Martin Ruiz's day.
The true freshman running back continued his breakout season with a personal-best 199 yards in the Penguins' 24-14 victory over Western Illinois. He ran for a 60-yard touchdown in the first quarter and provided one of the biggest plays of the game on a critical drive in the fourth quarter.
With the Penguins (7-1, 4-0 Missouri Valley Conference) facing a third-and-7 and clinging to a 17-14 lead, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Ruiz darted up the middle. He made a few nifty moves once he hit the secondary and ended up gaining 57 yards. The run, which was aided by a massive hole created by the offensive line, set up a game-sealing touchdown pass from Kurt Hess to tight end Nate Adams.
"It started with the line," said Ruiz of the third-down play. "(Left guard) Fred (Herdman) had a big play on that. I just seen a big hole, hit it and tried to get as far as I could.
"I wouldn't have had any yards if it wasn't for my linemen. My receivers, too. I have to give a shoutout to all of them."
Ruiz earned the starting spot after injuries to Demond Hymes and Adaris Bellamy, and he blossomed immediately. He has a team-best 775 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns - second best in the conference.
His poise and humility are equally impressive.
"He's a good young kid," YSU coach Eric Wolford said. "Very mature."
Saturday wasn't perfect for the Florida native, however.
"It was," said Ruiz when asked if it was the coldest conditions he ever played in. "Especially with the rain. But it's fun running the ball in the rain. When it's raining like this, we've got a lot of plays in the ground game. We're not going to throw it too much. Just give me the ball and let me go."
HESS COOLS OFF: Hess followed up one of the best performances of his career with one of his worst. The 6-3, 230-pound senior was named the FCS National Offensive Player of the Week after going 17 of 21 for a career-high 311 yards and four touchdowns against Illinois State. Things didn't go as well against Western Illinois.
He completed just 7 of 18 passes for a measly 47 yards, two touchdowns and one interception - his first since Week 1, or 157 attempts. Wolford pointed to some trickery by Western Illinois (3-5, 1-3).
"They played a completely different coverage than they had shown previously," Wolford said. "We made some adjustments, and then when you make some adjustments, the gentleman you're throwing to doesn't always sit down where he's supposed to. So, we've got to be a little better job with the pitch and catch."
SPECIAL SPECIALS: One of the key plays early in the game came when a snap on a punt skipped under the punter's legs. By the time he gathered the ball, senior defensive end Kyle Sirl jarred it loose with a big hit, and linebacker Teven Williams eventually fell on after a few funny hops.
It was one of several big plays by the Penguins' special teams. Place kicker Joey Cejudo improved to 5 for 5 on field goals with a 33-yarder in rain and a blistering wind that put YSU up, 17-14. YSU's long snapper Nathan Gibbs was accurate on his snaps, and Nick Liste twice pinned the Leathernecks inside their own 5-yard line, one of which was downed by a hustling Gibbs.
"Possibly the team MVP in my book," Wolford said of Liste. "He was huge again. He made some big time kicks. Everybody always talks about the guys who are running with the ball, scoring touchdowns, interceptions, tackles, big hits and those kind of things, but Nick Liste has been outstanding all year. Gibbs, all he does is snap the ball, but he does a pretty darn good job of it. You saw what happened to their guy when he dribbled one back. Those are guys who deserve some recognition."