YOUNGSTOWN - Kurt Hess is in a tough spot.
Youngstown State's starting quarterback wants to approach the final four games of the season with the same mentality he has every other game. No added pressure. No major changes to the offense. No looking ahead to the next opponent.
The problem is the next four games could be his last four if things don't go well for the No. 10/11-ranked Penguins (7-1, 4-0 Missouri Valley Conference).
Hess, a fifth-year senior who holds nearly every relevant passing record at YSU, said it's starting to sink in that his football career is nearing its end.
"Absolutely," said Hess when asked if this was the most important four-game stretch of his career. "We've got a lot to play for. We've worked so hard this year. We've become a family. This is all we've worked for, but we can't look ahead. As I said, this four-game stretch is very important. This one this week is the most important."
The Penguins are in a prime spot to earn their first playoff berth since 2006. The sure-fire way to the postseason is by winning the conference title, which would earn them an automatic bid and, most likely, a first-round bye. YSU is currently tied with top-ranked North Dakota State for first place in the MVC. The Bison (8-0, 5-0), who have won back-to-back national championships, come to Stambaugh Stadium on Nov. 16. That game is part of a late-season gauntlet for the Penguins, who play four of the toughest opponents to end the year (at South Dakota on Saturday, at Northern Iowa on Nov. 9 before ending with home games against the Bison and South Dakota State).
"Everything is there in front of us," YSU coach Eric Wolford said. "One thing we talked about since day one was, after last year, being disappointed that we didn't make the playoffs, is keeping control of our destiny. We control our own destiny as of today."
That could change Saturday if the Penguins stumble at South Dakota (4-4, 3-2). The Coyotes are tied for third in the conference but are coming off a somewhat surprising double-digit loss to Illinois State, a team YSU embarrassed, 59-12, a few weeks ago. Still, South Dakota boasts the fifth-ranked defense in the FCS, allowing 297.5 yards per game, and are a perfect 3-0 at the DakotaDome.
"They're not going to give us a lot of deep plays," Hess said. "We're going to have to grind it out. We're going to have play physical, manage the game, keep the turnovers down and I think we can have success."
INJURY UPDATES: Coming off the bye week, the Penguins are as healthy as they've been all year. Senior co-captain Dom Rich is one of the only players who began the season as a starter but will likely miss the upcoming game because of injury. Rich's hip kept him out for the past two games, but Wolford said he could play 10-15 plays against the Coyotes. Also making a return is senior running back Adaris Bellamy, who hasn't played since Week 1 because of "a personal leave of absence from the team" to deal with a family matter. Wolford did not say if Bellamy would play on Saturday.