One more win would all but assure Youngstown State a spot in the FCS playoffs, but that victory won't come easy.
The No. 8-ranked Penguins (8-1, 5-0 Missouri Valley Conference) face Northern Iowa in a matchup that started in 1978. Unfortunately for YSU, the Panthers (4-5, 0-5) have dominated the series, winning 20 out of 27, including six straight in the UNI-Dome.
The Penguins are catching Northern Iowa at a good time, as the Panthers have lost five straight - all in the MVC - after being ranked No. 4 in the nation through five weeks. YSU, on the other hand, is coming off another wild win, this time against South Dakota. The Penguins are on their first six-game win streak since Jim Tressel was coach back in 2000.
More importantly, it would be nearly impossible for the Penguins to be left out of the playoff picture if they were to win.
YSU - Kurt Hess once again bounced back from a poor performance with a spectacular one. He connected on 22 of 26 passes for 282 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions, earning him MVC?Offensive Player of the Week honors. Hess has completed 136 of 215 attempts (63 percent) for 1,831 yards, 19 touchdowns and three interceptions. He's led two fourth-quarter comebacks and has grown into one of the elite quarterbacks in the FCS.
UNI - Sophomore starter Sawyer Kollmorgen suffered his second concussion of the season last week and it's unlikely he'll play. That leaves junior Brion Carnes, a Nebraska transfer with good speed and athleticism. He played the entire second half against Illinois State (going 4 of 14 for 20 yards passing), so the Penguins have an idea of his strengths and weaknesses. But a week of preparation gave the Panthers a chance to install packages more suitable to his style of play, so YSU may have a hard time knowing what's coming.
EDGE - YSU
YSU - The story of Martin Ruiz just keeps getting better. The true freshman scored the game-winning touchdown with 14 seconds left in the Penguins' 38-34 victory over South Dakota. He ran for 131 yards and two TDs on 22 carries. He now has 14 touchdowns (second best in the conference) and 906 yards - both are records for a freshman. Another freshman, redshirt Jody Webb, is starting to come on as well. He ran for 64 yards on five carries, which included a 42-yard TD, and he also caught two passes for 52 yards -?and that includes a 40-yard TD. It's no wonder the Penguins lead the MVC with 2,028 rushing yards.
UNI - Another major injury for UNI came when David Johnson went down last week with an ankle injury. He also is doubtful to play. Evan Williams (6-0, 200) steps in after gaining 62 yards on 15 carries against Illinois State. He and Tyvis Smith (6-3, 210) will likely share carries for the Panthers. Smith has 161 yards and two touchdowns on 38 carries, while Williams has 156 yards and two TDs on 34 attempts.
EDGE - YSU
YSU - It's hard to know who's going to beat you on the YSU receiving corps. Nine different players caught a pass last week, and five had at least 40 yards. Christian Bryan is coming on strong after a bit of a slow start. Coach Eric Wolford said the 5-foot-10, 185-pound junior has some of the best hands on the team, which makes it easy to understand why Hess turns to him in crucial situations. He's one of 10 YSU players with at least one touchdown catch.
UNI - Chad Owens and Kevin Vereen have been steady targets on the outside all season. Owens owns a team-high 48 catches for 480 yards and three touchdowns, and the 6-3, 205-pound Vereen has 39 grabs for 590 yards and four TDs. It will be important for them to get on the same page as their inexperienced quarterback. Same goes for tight end Braden Lehman, who's can be an inviting target at 6-7, 245.
EDGE - YSU
YSU - The Penguins allowed a season-high four sacks, but Wolford, who's usually very critical of the offensive line, didn't put all the blame on them. He said Hess held the ball too long on a few plays, and a miscommunication happened on another. YSU led the conference in sacks allowed up until this week (it's fourth now). The line's ability to run block continues to be a strength, paving the way for 234 yards per game.
UNI - The offensive line has been solid for the Panthers throughout the season. Led by returning starters Dan Kruger (6-5, 320) and Jack Rummells (6-5, 300), the men up front have allowed 13 sacks (tied for fourth in the MVC with the Penguins). The run game has been iffy, averaging 4.1 yards per carry and scoring 12 touchdowns (YSU leads the league with 28).
EDGE - YSU
YSU - Youngstown State didn't record a sack for only the second time this season (the only other being against Michigan State). The lack of pressure aided the Coyotes in compiling 408 yards of total offense. Pressuring the inexperienced quarterback of Northern Iowa will be vital to slowing a stagnant Panther offense.
UNI - The return of 6-4, 311-pound nose tackle Xavier Williams, who missed two weeks with an injury, was a nice boost for a group that had been struggling. Williams helps with the run game, but the Panthers haven't pressured the QB well after a strong start to the season. Senior end Collin Albrecht is one of the better pass rushers in the league with seven sacks (second best in the MVC).
EDGE - UNI
YSU - Weak-side linebacker Travis Williams is suspended for the first half of the game because of "targeting"?an opponent on a hit against South Dakota. Taking over for Williams, the Penguins' fourth leading tackler, is Ali Cheaib. Cheaib has played well at times this year and has two starts under his belt, so there shouldn't be a major dropoff. It's unknown whether senior captain Dom Rich, recovering from a hip injury, will see playing time after missing last week.
UNI - The Panthers lost their best linebacker in junior Jake Farley, the coach's son, because of a broken leg early in the season. Depth has helped this group stay afloat, but it's not nearly as good without Farley. ILB?Jordan Gacke leads UNI with 70 tackles, and Deiondre' Hall is a very versatile player, with 47 stops, three sacks, one pick and four passes defended.
EDGE - YSU
YSU - The Penguins continue to rank near the bottom of the conference in allowing 264 passing yards per game, but they're fifth in the MVC?with eight picks. Junior corner Julius Childs is second on the team with 55 tackles and also owns a team-best eight pass breakups. Strong safety Donald D'Alesio is having his best season with 52 tackles (third on YSU), one pick and one forced fumble. They could have their hands full against a talented UNI?receiving corps.
UNI - Northern Iowa is very young in the secondary, with a junior, two sophomores and a freshman starting. Injuries have pushed young players - and others who don't normally play defensive back - into action. The situation has started to sort itself out, but expect the Penguins to test this group, which has a league-worst five picks.
EDGE - YSU
YSU - Place kicker Joey Cejudo missed his first PAT of his career last week. He was a perfect 43 for 43 on PATs. He's still 5 for 5 on field goals. YSU also missed a pair of two-point conversions. Nick Liste remained steady on kickoffs (four touchbacks) and punts. YSU has yet to allow a kickoff or punt returned for a touchdown.
UNI - Field goal kicker Tyler Sievertsen is one of the best in the FCS, granted he has the advantage of playing in a dome. He's made 17 of 21 this year - with a long of 50 - and he hasn't missed inside 35 yards this year. The Panthers have allowed one punt return for a touchdown, but they're second best in the MVC in covering kicks (behind YSU).
EDGE - YSU
It's hard to believe a team that's been as dominant as UNI has over the years is struggling like this, but they've been in every game and are a few plays away from being 4-1 in the MVC. Still, they're without several key starters, and YSU is on a roll. Even despite the Penguins terrible record at the UNI-Dome (1-11 in their last 12), a YSU?loss would be a major upset.