YOUNGSTOWN - It's been a long time since Youngstown State had a game of this magnitude at Stambaugh Stadium, and coincidentally, the man who made games like these commonplace will be in the house on Saturday.
The Penguins welcome top-ranked and back-to-back national champion North Dakota State University to Youngstown on Saturday in a game that has huge implications on several levels. A win would essentially assure the No. 15-ranked Penguins (8-2, 5-1 Missouri Valley Conference) a playoff berth for the first time since 2006 and put them in line for a chance at a conference title. A loss means YSU would likely be in a must-win situation during the final week of the season when it hosts South Dakota State. A defeat also would dampen the mood on a day when legendary coach Jim Tressel will be inducted into the school's hall of fame.
The Penguins current coach is doing all he can to avoid that outcome.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Coach Eric Wolford leads the Youngstown State Penguins on to the field in the season opener. This week, YSU?welcomes in No. 1 North Dakota State to Stambaugh Stadium.
"We want to get back to playing for championships here," YSU's Eric Wolford said. "We have that opportunity Saturday, so we all know what this game means."
The Bison (9-0, 6-0) have a lot riding as well since a victory secures a third straight conference championship and an automatic bid into the playoffs. They're also on an 18-game win streak - the longest in the FCS and second in all of college football to Ohio State's 21-game run. Yet, the Penguins have held their own against NDSU, holding a 4-3 edge in the all-time series. YSU did suffer a stunning, 48-7, loss last year in a matchup of No. 1 (North Dakota State) versus No. 3. The setback led to a four-game slide for the Penguins, ultimately keeping them out of the playoffs, but the other six matchups between these teams have been decided by eight points or less.
This is one of the main reasons YSU doesn't sound intimidated by the Bison.
"There's nothing extra special about them except obviously their ranking," Penguins defensive end Kyle Sirl said. "Nobody's invincible in college football. I think you see that week to week. There's upsets all over the country. We don't look at them as invincible and we can't beat them at all. We've never thought that about any team we played."
The Penguins must shake off a stinging, last-second loss to Northern Iowa and will need to bounce back from a loss for just the second time this year. Special teams mistakes, penalties and a stagnant offense - areas in which YSU?has rarely struggled in this year - led to a fourth-quarter comeback by the Panthers. Those mistakes can't happen against a team that leads the FCS in total defense.
"A lot of the things were self inflicted," Wolford said. "We had nine penalties. That's uncharacteristic of us. We were the least penalized team in the league going into that game. Those things are all correctable. Much like a kid who touches a hot stove, we need to learn from those mistakes. But even with the blocked punt, even with the kickoff return fumble, we still had every opportunity to win that game, as bad as that was. We learned from it, and we have a great game plan put together. We just need to go out and execute it and not beat ourselves. This is one of those games."
It's a game Tressel won more times than not. Wolford is hoping the man who brought four national titles to Youngstown can bring something else.
"We're excited to have him back in town, and hopefully he brings some of his mojo for us," Wolford joked. "We'll get him to sprinkle some of that around."