It's been a while since Youngstown State entered a game with this much on the line. Playoffs and a conference title are up for grabs, and it all goes down at the Ice Castle.
The unbeaten and top-ranked North Dakota State University Bison (9-0, 6-0 Missouri Valley Conference) invade Stambaugh?Stadium at 2 p.m. today. The two-time national champs are loaded at most positions, but injuries have made them somewhat vulnerable.
The Penguins (8-2, 5-1) have held their own against the Bison over the years, holding a 4-3 series lead. They'll need to play well in all phases of the game to upset NDSU. YSU must also shake off last week's last-second loss to Northern Iowa.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
YSU coach Eric Wolford leads the Penguins onto the field before a game earlier this season. Wolford can essentially earn his first playoff appearance with a win today.
YSU - Youngstown State senior Kurt Hess holds nearly every relevant school passing record, but he needs to win a marquee game and reach the playoffs to be looked at as one of the all-time greats at YSU. He has all the physical tools, and he's made big plays at key points of games, so there's no reason to think he shouldn't perform well today. He's 151 of 237 passing (63.7 percent) for 2,038 yards, 20 touchdowns and four interceptions. He's also led two fourth-quarter comebacks.
NDSU - Senior Brock Jensen was under center for both of the Bison's national titles and is arguably the best quarterback in the FCS. His numbers are impressive - completing 132 of 200 passes (66 percent) for 1,646 yards, 20 touchdowns and four interceptions - but it's his ability to make plays at critical times of the game that sets him apart. He's also a dual threat, as he has 240 yards and four TDs.
EDGE - NDSU
YSU - True freshman Martin Ruiz will face what may be his stiffest competition of the season (Michigan State's defense is also pretty good). Ruiz had his three-game streak of 100-plus yard games broke last week when he had 84. He's only 6 yards shy of 1,000 (already a freshman record) and is second in the MVC with 14 touchdowns. A big game against the best defense in the FCS (allowing 239.7 yards per game) would make his freshman season one of the most remarkable in team history - all positions included. Jody Webb, a speedy scatback, has supplanted Demond Hymes as the No. 2 back.?He's averaging 8.2 yards per carry.
NDSU - The backfield is a two-headed monster of Sam Ojuri (6-1, 212) and John Crockett (6-0, 202). Both have a good mixture of speed and power. Ojuri, a senior, is the starter and has a team-high 738 yards rushing. He has breakaway speed and good vision. Crockett has similar attributes but is a bit more of a power back with a nose for the goal line (eight TDs to three for Ojuri).
EDGE - Even
YSU - Depth is the only reason the Penguins get a slight edge in overall talent. Someone is going to have to make a few big plays in the passing game to loosen up a very stout NDSU run defense. YSU has the talent to make the plays, but the WRs must be on the same page as Hess as far as audibles and route adjustments for those plays to happen. Christian Bryan, a great possession receiver with good hands, leads the Penguins with 25 receptions. Sophomores Andrew Williams and Marcel Caver are the deep threats and are first and second in receiving yardage, while Andre Stubbs is a versatile weapon who could be seen in a few trick plays.
NDSU - Ryan Smith, a quick and shifty possession receiver, was named to the All-MVC?Preseason First Team, but it's been Zach Vraa who's been having a breakout season. The 6-foot-2, 203-pound Vraa leads the conference in yards per reception (19.3) and touchdowns (10). Smith, who has 36 receptions, and Vraa (38) carry the load for NDSU, but tight end Kevin Vaadeland is a big threat in the red zone - four of his eight catches went for touchdowns.
EDGE - YSU
YSU - The men up front need to be at their best today because NDSU's front seven is impressive. The line is fourth in the MVC?in sacks allowed (14) and YSU is second in rush offense (214.1 yards per game). The Penguins must have balance to penetrate a vaunted Bison defense, and the line is where it all starts.
NDSU - The Bison line is as good as it gets in the MVC. North Dakota State leads the conference in rushing (225.6 yards per game) and has allowed the least amount of sacks (11). It's led by All-American left tackle Billy Turner (6-6, 314). They're big up front as well, averaging 6-4 and 300 pounds.
EDGE - Even
YSU - Kyle Sirl is having a career year as a senior and has become arguably the best player on the defense. He has a team-best 9.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. Emmanuel Kromah is tied with Sirl with four sacks. The sophomore has developed into a solid tackle. This group needs to find a way to pressure Jensen, an area it has struggled in this year.
NDSU - The Bison lead the league in run defense and are second in sacks (30). End Cole Jirik (6-5, 248) and tackle Leevon Perry (6-4, 282) were both named to the MVC first-team defense. They don't have great numbers this year, but that's probably because teams are running to the other side. That's where end Kyle Emanuel (6-3, 246) and tackle Ryan Drevlow (6-4, 281) loom. They are first and second on the Bison in sacks, with 6.5 and 4.5, respectively. Emanuel also has a team-best 8.5 tackles for loss.
EDGE - NDSU
YSU - Travis Williams returns after a half-game suspension for "targeting" an opposing player, but strong-side linebacker and team co-captain Dom Rich still hasn't fully recovered from a hip injury. MLB Teven Williams leads YSU with 66 tackles. It would be big if one of the LBs could make a jarring hit or pick off a pass against the Bison. The backers haven't made a lot of big, game-changing plays this year.
NDSU - The loss of All-American middle linebacker Grant Olson, who tore his ACL last week, is a big one, but the Bison showed their incredible depth on defense. Olson's replacement, Carlton Littlejohn, stepped in and ended up being named the MVC Defensive Player of the Week (16 tackles). Littlejohn, who moved from strong-side linebacker, is third on NDSU with 41 tackles. WLB?Travis Beck, an honorable-mention all-conference honoree, is fourth with 35. Teams are averaging 83.4 yards rushing per game against NDSU, second best in the nation.
EDGE - NDSU
YSU - Senior Dale Peterman made his second interception of the year last week and also had a team-high eight tackles, forced a fumble and recovered it. Fellow corner Julius Childs has been the target for quite a few opposing quarterbacks, and with two solid wide receivers, he'll need to play well today. Strong safety Donald D'Alesio and FS Jameel Smith are third and fourth on the team in tackles.
NDSU - Defensive back Marcus Williams, another All-American, strained his knee last week and missed some practice time, but if he's fully healthy, he's one of the best in the business. He has six pass break-ups and two interceptions. He made a back-breaking pick of Hess last year, returning it 98 yards for a TD to start a 48-7 rout. Junior strong safety Colten Heagle is second on NDSU with 57 tackles. Corner CJ Smith also has two interceptions, and free safety Christian Dudzik has one as well.
EDGE - NDSU
YSU - Special teams cost YSU big time last week as UNI blocked a punt and forced a fumble on a kickoff. Those mistakes can't happen against NDSU. Nick Liste leads the MVC with a 44.1-yard average on punts and he also leads with 34 touchbacks on kickoffs (the next closest is 17). Joey Cejudo is 5 for 6 on field goals with a long of 40.
NDSU - The aforementioned Dudzik is the MVC's top punt returner, averaging 12.2 yards per return with two touchdowns. Punter Ben LeCompte is second to Liste in punt average (43.8). Place kicker Adam Keller is 5 for 8 on field goals with a long of 41.
EDGE - YSU
On paper, it doesn't look like YSU has much of a chance. The Bison defense can be dominant at times, and if it can make YSU one-dimensional, things could get ugly.
On the other side of things, YSU's offense can pick apart teams at will when it's clicking on all cylinders. Hess needs to be efficient, there has to be some type of running game to keep the NDSU defense honest. The defense will be the key. It's played well in spurts, and its bend-but-don't-break style could be effective against the Bison, but there has to be a big play or two to ignite what should be a raucous Stambaugh Stadium.
In the end, the Bison are just too talented across the board.