YSU looking for revenge Saturday

YOUNGSTOWN – You’re not going to catch Eric Wolford wearing the same socks or underwear for an entire season as part of some ritualistic hope it leads to a win.

Superstition isn’t his style.

“I’ve been in too many games to believe in that stuff,” he said.

Revenge might be a different story.

The Penguins (3-1) have that on their minds as they travel to Carbondale, Ill., for their Missouri Valley Conference opener against Southern Illinois, which engineered a devastating, come-from-behind victory over YSU last year at Stambaugh Stadium. The Penguins led, 21-10, before committing five turnovers and allowing 28 unanswered points in a 38-21 loss.

The loss was part of a four-game slide that kept YSU out of the playoffs, leaving a sting that hasn’t yet wore off.

“It was really rough coming off (the field),” junior wide receiver Christian Bryan said. “That was the third in a row we lost at the time. They did a great job, but it was a lot about what we did – we kind of handed it to ’em a little bit.”

That can’t happen again if the Penguins are going to end a six-year postseason drought. The best way to do that is by winning what is arguably the toughest conference in the FCS, a quest that starts at 7 p.m. on Saturday.

The Salukis (2-2) are coming off wins against Southeast Missouri State (36-19) and the University of Charleston (31-10) after starting the season with losses to Illinois (42-34) and Eastern Illinois (40-37, 2OT). Southern Illinois leads the league in rush defense, allowing just 83.5 yards per game, and is tied for first in sacks with 13. The stout run defense of SIU will face the power run game of a YSU team leading the league by averaging 238.8 yards per game.

“Something’s gotta give,” Bryan said. “We’ll find out how good our rush offense really is because they’ve been doing a great job stopping the run this year. We’re going to have to throw the ball, too, and our receivers will be ready.”

Youngstown State true freshman Martin Ruiz could find himself in the thick of it all. Ruiz, who leads YSU with 268 rushing yards and seven TDs, has been a pleasant surprise for the Penguins. Sophomore Demond Hymes entered camp as the starter but has recovered slowly from an ankle injury (he saw his first action in the fourth quarter of last weekend’s 59-17 blowout). Senior Adaris Bellamy was next in line, and he looked ready to take over after a 200-yard performance in the opener, but he hasn’t played since Week 1 due to an undisclosed injury. Fellow senior Torrian Pace has been steady but doesn’t provide the explosiveness of Ruiz.

Wolford said Hymes and Bellamy must work their way back up the depth chart. He hasn’t yet chosen a starter for this week.

“We’ll kind of call that thing when it gets closer to game time,” he said. “What’s great is that you have a lot of competition. So guys that aren’t doing thing exactly the way you want them done in practice – too many missed assignments or fundamental things – then we’ll start the other guy. We enjoy having that competition back there.”

The battle in the trenches will be just as important. YSU offensive lineman Fred Herdman admitted the Penguins should find out a lot more about their team come Saturday. They’ve dominated teams they were favored to beat but struggled against Michigan State, an FBS school. Now they’re matched up against a team finished to pick seventh in the MVC, two spots lower than YSU.

“Conference play is a whole different animal,” Herdman said. “There are no teams in our league that don’t have the potential to go on to the playoffs. And playing on the road is tough. Southern Illinois, you’re on the bus and when you drive up, their whole tailgate lot is filled. It’s real intimidating, but we’ve got the team to handle it.”

A team that is still stewing over last year’s collapse.

“We’re mad about it,” Wolford said. “That was a bad loss. We weren’t happy about it. Those players remember it, and I’m sure they’ll play well on Saturday.”