YOUNGSTOWN – The Western Illinois football team got quite a scare on its way to Youngstown.
The Leathernecks’ plane nosedived approximately 25,000 feet, oxygen masks deployed and a few “I love you, honey” text messages were sent.
The plane eventually landed safely in Youngstown, where Western Illinois then gave the Penguins quite a scare.
Youngstown State needed to engineer a fourth-quarter drive in the final minutes, capped by a terrific diving touchdown catch by tight end Nate Adams, to beat Western Illinois, 24-14, on homecoming at Stambaugh Stadium.
The Penguins (7-1, 4-0) entered the game tied atop the Missouri Valley Conference standings, while WIU (3-5, 1-3) was near the bottom and coming off back-to-back double-digit losses.
“I told you guys on Tuesday they were a good football team,” said YSU coach Eric Wolford during his post-game press conference. “I don’t ever mislead you guys. I tell you how it is.”
Well, it was ugly for a good portion of the day – both the game and the conditions. A steady downpour rained on the homecoming parade, and it may have helped contribute to a dismal performance by YSU quarterback Kurt Hess. The senior and reigning FCS National Offensive Player of the Week completed 7 of 18 passes for 47 yards, two touchdowns and one interception – his first pick since Week 1, a span of 157 attempts. He did, however, make a nice pass on the game-winner to Adams.
Hess rolled to his right, stopped and fired the ball across the field on a designed throwback pass. Adams was well covered on the play, but he laid out, fully extended, and kept his hands under the ball as he hit the ground. The official was in good position to make the call and quickly raised his arms to signal touchdown.
“Obviously a great moment,” Adams said. “The line blocked for Kurt, and he put it up in just the right spot. Real excited about that play.”
The person who kept YSU afloat for the other 57 minutes of the game was true freshman Martin Ruiz, who ran for 199 yards and gashed the Leathernecks’ defense on a critical third-and-7 during the final drive. A situation that usually calls for a pass ended up being a draw to Ruiz, who burst through the middle thanks to a key block by guard Fred Herdman. Ruiz made some nice moves and finished the 57-yard jaunt at the WIU 17, setting up Adams’ catch.
“They (Western Illinois) had been getting up (near the line) and showing pressure, then getting back out of it,” Wolford explained. “They decided to stay with it. Ruiz made a few guys miss once he got to the second level and did a great job with ball security.”
The YSU offense, which came in leading the conference by averaging 450 yards per game, struggled throughout, finishing with 299 yards (47 passing). Hess couldn’t find a rhythm, and while Ruiz played well, 117 of his 199 yards came on two runs (he had a 60-yard touchdown run in the first quarter). The Penguins never trailed, but they allowed the Leathernecks to hang around. WIU freshman quarterback Trenton Norvell, coming off a four-interception performance, looked like a freshman early on, but he started to play well down the stretch. He hit wide receiver Lance Lenoir on a 9-yard slant midway through the third quarter to tie the game at 14.
Things stayed that way until YSU place kicker Joey Cejudo booted a 33-yard field goal to give the Penguins a 17-14 edge. Western Illinois responded with a 10-play, 57-yard drive, but kicker Nathan Knuffman was wide left on a 40-yard field-goal attempt, giving YSU the chance it needed.
“We left a lot of yards out there,” Adams admitted. “But a win is a win. We’re not too worried with what happened during the game, just as long as we can add another W to our win column.”