Challenges become harder for Penguins

YOUNGSTOWN – Most of the players were pretty excited following Youngstown State’s conference-opening victory over South Dakota last Saturday, but they also understood why coach Bo Pelini wasn’t as thrilled.

The schedule gets harder from here.

YSU (3-1, 1-0 Missouri Valley Football Conference), now ranked as a high as 13th in FCS Coaches Poll, was a bit sloppy at times in its 30-20 win over the 1-3 Coyotes, and the Penguins can’t afford a similar showing on the road against No. 23 Illinois State. The Redbirds are reeling a bit after three straight losses, but ISU (2-3, 0-2) beat Northwestern of the Big Ten Conference early this year and is annually one of the elite teams in the FCS.

“We’re going to get their best shot,” Pelini said.

The Penguins better be ready to hit back.

Illinois State tied North Dakota State for the MVFC title each of the past two years. The Redbirds lost in the final seconds of the 2014 FCS National Championship to the Bison and reached the quarterfinals last year. Several key players graduated from those teams, but as Pelini and several players noted, ISU is still one of the best teams in the FCS – and it starts with their toughness.

“In my mind, they’re just as physical and just as tough as North Dakota State,” said YSU quarterback Ricky Davis of the five-time defending national champion Bison. “I would put them up there in terms of physicality and the way they fly to the football.”

The Penguins need to be better to contend with another powerful Redbirds team.

One area that needs immediate attention is the red zone. YSU moved inside South Dakota’s 20-yard line seven times and only scored on five of those opportunities – three of which were field goals. They also turned the ball over four times and never pulled away from a Coyotes team that threw two interceptions, fumbled twice and punted six times.

“This conference is definitely no joke,” YSU defensive tackle Cody Squiric said. “Every week it just gets harder and harder because everyone is so hungry for that championship. Coach gets upset because he sees where we can be – and we see it too. We definitely, collectively, as a team see it. He just wants us to push for that perfection as much as he wants to. He kind of lives us through us. He wants us to be as perfect as we can be.”

Adding to the matchup is a long history between the two teams, which have met in 21 straight seasons.

The Redbirds have had YSU’s number at Hancock Stadium over the years. The Penguins’ last victory in Normal, Ill., was 2006 (the last time YSU made the playoffs). The teams met again that year in the FCS playoffs, with YSU again winning, 28-21.

YSU lost in controversial fashion last year, falling 31-29 at home when referees determined quarterback Hunter Wells’ knee was down prior to crossing the goal line on a two-point conversion in the final seconds. This year’s contest also holds major implications.

The Redbirds are desperate for a win, as another loss would be a crippling blow to their playoff hopes. YSU is again trying to prove it’s not the same old Penguins, who often show flashes of greatness only to fall short in key games.

“They’re more hungry than most teams now,” Davis said. “They need this win, and they’re going to do anything they can to get it. It’s going to be a tough game, and I’m excited to play these guys.”