Penguins power into playoffs

Rout of Missouri State features 3 rushers with more than 150 yards

Ten years of misery and missed chances came to a screeching halt for the Youngstown State football team Saturday.

The Penguins exorcised a decade of demons with a record-setting performance, rushing for 575 yards and seven touchdowns and essentially locking up a playoff spot with an emphatic 65-20 victory over Missouri State at Plaster Field in Springfield, Missouri.

The Penguins (8-3, 6-2 Missouri Valley Football Conference), who haven’t reached the postseason since 2006, find out their playoff fate today during the FCS Playoff Selection Show, which is set to air at 11 a.m. on ESPNU.

“It’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we’re going to have to take full advantage of, and it’s going to be something that we’re really going to have to embrace,” YSU quarterback Hunter Wells said. “We understand that you don’t get this opportunity very often, especially in the conference that we’re in and with the way things have worked in the past.”

Three players ran for more than 150 yards against Missouri State as the Penguins set a school record for rushing yards. Joe Alessi led the way with 190 yards and two touchdowns on seven attempts, but his big day came after the game was in hand. Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb set the tone early on for YSU.

Ruiz ran for 183 yards and three TDs on 19 rushes, including a pivotal 94-yard jaunt that was the second-longest run in school history. Webb added 166 yards and two TDs on 15 carries. He had touchdown runs of 53 and 52 yards.

The impressive showing came together behind an offensive line that dominated from start to finish.

“That is by far the best game I’ve seen the o-line play, and I can’t give those guys enough credit. They’re the best o-line in the country if you ask me,” said Wells, who completed 15-of-16 passes for 157 yards and one TD in leading the Penguins to 747 yards of total offense. “The way we had the schemes worked out and the way that the coaches planned for us, we had a great gameplan. Our o-line blocked their tails off, the running backs ran well, the receivers ran good routes, so when you get everyone working on the same page, it tends to look very easy for me.”

The Penguins led 21-0 before the Bears (4-7, 2-6) notched a second-quarter field goal. Ruiz quickly responded with his 94-yard run, but Missouri State struck back with a 63-yard TD pass to cut the lead to 27-10. That’s as close as the Bears got as YSU scored the next 24 points to go up 51-10 before the fourth quarter even started.

The offensive display was especially impressive considering YSU had scored two touchdowns — both last week — in its last three games. It scored eight Saturday.

“This is a big win for our offense just because we needed something to get going for us,” Wells said. “We’ve been in a slump lately.”

Not any more. And they had help.

A defense that came in leading the FCS in sacks (37) added three more and also made a key interception early in the game. Trailing by seven, MSU quarterback Brodie Lambert threw a pass to an open receiver running into the end zone, but he bobbled the catch. Safety LeRoy Alexander tipped the deflection twice before corralling it. The Penguins responded with two straight TDs to take control of the game.

The Penguins enter the postseason, potentially, playing as well as they have all season, and Wells made it clear they’re not satisfied with simply making the 24-team playoff.

“Obviously we’re not where we want to be yet — making the playoffs is the first step,” he said. “We’ve got to take it one week at a time to achieve the goal that we’ve been working for since I’ve been here.

“Everybody on the team understands and the coaches understand how big that this upcoming week is as a program,” he added. “It goes back to taking pride in it. This city’s been without a championship for a while, without the playoffs for a while. There’s been a lot of talk about our football team, and I feel like we’ve got to live up to those expectations and take pride in being a Youngstown State football player and really understand what that means.”