Penguins’ line fuels punishing run game

YSU's #29 Martin Ruiz follows the blocking of teammate #60 Gavin Wiggins as Samford's #99 Ahmad Gooden goes for the tackle during 2nd Qt. R. Michael Semple

YOUNGSTOWN — Ask an offensive linemen what his favorite thing to do is, and the answer is usually the same — especially with the center sneak not being a part of too many playbooks.

Run blocking is what’s the most fun for a lineman. They get to run people over, push guys around and get a head start to block players who are usually smaller than them.

“Absolutely,” said YSU center Vitas Hrynkiewicz when asked if run blocking was his favorite part of being a lineman. “That’s what we love to do. It’s what we’re told wins games, and we’re happy to do it.”

The front five of Hrynkiewicz, Dylan Colucci, Brock Eisenhuth, Gavin Wiggins and Justin Spencer was certainly a happy group after the Penguins’ 38-24 drubbing of Samford in a first-round FCS playoff game Saturday. YSU (9-3) ran for 289 yards and five touchdowns as the Penguins’ dominated the line of scrimmage and rolled over the Bulldogs.

“I’m proud of those guys,” YSU coach Bo Pelini said of the line. “They played hard. They came off the football. We wore that team down. I thought our tight ends played extremely well. Our backs ran well. It was a good effort.”

The Penguins have now rushed for 864 yards and 12 touchdowns in their last two games. They came into the game ranked seventh nationally in yards rushing per game, thanks in large part to a veteran line that has routinely wore teams down throughout the season.

Aside from averaging 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds and just being really, really strong across the front, Hrynkiewicz said technique and chemistry are a big part of their success.

“We always hang out — we’ll all be hanging out tonight,” said the 6-4, 300-pound sophomore. “We’re like five best friends, and it’s awesome that we get to play together.”

WELCOME BACK: Junior linebacker Lee Wright played in his first game since being suspended in August.

Wright, who led YSU in tackles last year, was suspended by a YSU hearing panel after he pleaded no contest to improperly handling a firearm in a motor vehicle. He was cleared to play on Wednesday, and while he didn’t record a tackle in limited playing time against Samford, Pelini expects him to make an impact in next week’s second-round matchup with Jacksonville State.

“He’ll get a full week of practice this week, and he’s going to be a big-time asset for us,” Pelini said. “We weren’t able to to use him as much as we’d like to tonight, just because, heck, we were halfway through our week of preparation before he got cleared to play, but I would think that next week you’re going to see a full dose of No. 5.”

INJURY UPDATES: Senior defensive end Avery Moss, who entered Saturday’s game tied for the team lead in sacks (10), missed the win over Samford with an injured ankle. Pelini said he expects him to return next week, “which is obviously huge for our defense.”

Place-kicker Zak Kennedy, a sophomore from Cardinal Mooney, returned after missing two games with a thigh injury. He made a 25-yard field goal and four of YSU’s five extra points (back-up Connor McFadden made the last one).

BIG BOOT: Speaking of special teams, freshman punter Mark Schuler played a big role in the win. He sent one punt 74 yards — third longest in school history — and pinned Samford inside its own 20 three times. He averaged 48.8 yards on four punts.

“He really did a good job,” Pelini said. “Special teams wise, we played a really good football game.”