YOUNGSTOWN - Youngstown State's coaches and players talked about the scenario all week.
Beat South Dakota State in the regular-season finale, and the Penguins were in the playoffs. Lose, and they once again leave it up to a committee that hasn't been too kind to four-loss YSU teams in the past.
No one ever discussed what might happen if they got blown out.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Youngstown State’s Kyle Sirl wraps his arms around South Dakota State’s Zach Zenner and makes the tackle during Saturday’s second quarter at Stambaugh Stadium. Zenner rushed for several TDs against YSU.
That was just the case Saturday at snow-covered Stambaugh Stadium as the Jackrabbits dominated every phase of the game, beating YSU, 42-13, in a critical Missouri Valley Conference clash.
"We had a chance to control our destiny today, and we didn't do it," YSU coach Eric Wolford said. "When you pour everything you have into something, like I know that our kids and our coaches have, it does get to be a little frustrating at times. But one of the things that I believe in is that you just have to keep working at it. Wake up and fight, scratch and claw for everything you believe in, and stay the course. Eight wins - 8-4, does that get you in? I don't know."
The Penguins (8-4, 5-3 MVC) finished with four losses three times prior to this season and were 8-3 in two others and weren't selected for an at-large bid in any of those years. One thing the Penguins have in their favor is the postseason field expands from 20 to 24 teams this year. The playoff field will be announced at 11:30 a.m. today on ESPNU.
YSU senior quarterback Kurt Hess said after last week's loss that YSU needed to beat the Jackrabbits, or they "don't deserve to be in the playoffs." When asked about heir playoff fate on Saturday, minutes after possibly playing the final game of his illustrious career, his stance changed a bit.
"I don't know," said Hess, who threw two interceptions and was 9 of 19 for 138 yards and one TD in the loss. "We play one of the hardest schedules in the country. We play in one of the toughest conferences - the No. 1 rated one - and we played well this year in the conference. We didn't end hot. Three teams (from the MVC) could deserve a shot. We're just going to pray and hope that our number gets called and we can get another game."
It would be a surprise for the Penguins to be one of those teams after South Dakota State dismantled them.
Running back Zach Zenner and the Jackrabbits' offensive line set the tone on the first drive, as South Dakota State ran the ball six times for 73 yards on a seven-play scoring drive. It was a sign of things to come.
The Jackrabbits gashed YSU for 312 yards and four touchdowns (they had 224 by the half). Zenner, the conference's leading rusher, ran 186 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries. He ripped a YSU defense that struggled throughout the season and finished by allowing 482 total yards to the Jackrabbits.
"The glaring thing that showed up to me in probably the first drive of the game was that we had a bunch of missed tackles," Wolford said. "We had missed tackles all over the field - definitely in the double-digit range.
"What's most frustrating for us as a program right now is the way we were handled at the line of scrimmage. We were inefficient on offense in being able to run the football, which is something we've been able to do. And they ran the ball for 300 yards."
YSU responded to the Jackrabbits' opening score with a 1-yard touchdown run by Martin Ruiz, but SDSU answered with two straight touchdowns. The second TD came after Hess was intercepted in the Jackrabbits' end zone, giving SDSU a 21-6 lead. South Dakota State scored 14 points off of Hess' picks.
The Penguins cut the score to 21-13 when Hess hit Ruiz out of the backfield for a 63-yard score, but the Jackrabbits struck right back with a touchdown on their next drive to reestablish control.
The 28-13 halftime deficit became more daunting when a snow storm suddenly engulfed a stadium known as "The Ice Castle" during the break.
"I think the weather was a bit of a factor today because our guys thrive under adversity. I don't know about their team, but I know it didn't hurt us," said South Dakota State coach John Stiegelmeier, who added that he thought both YSU and the Jackrabbits deserved to be in the playoffs. "Our league is great. Unfortunately we beat up on each other all the time."
That might cost one or both of them a chance at the postseason. They finished in a four-way tie for second place in the MVC.
SDSU made its case stronger with a dominant second half. The Penguins punted on their first drive, and after a rare defensive stop, R.C. Kilgore made a nice lunging interception of Hess. South Dakota State converted two third downs on the ensuing drive (it was 10 of 13 for the game) and scored when quarterback Austin Sumner ran in from 7 yards out on third down.
"This hurts," said Hess, who holds numerous YSU records, including touchdown passes. "I'd love to play another one. Wherever the playoffs take us, wherever our journey takes us, we still have that goal of a national championship in our minds."