Scouting Report: Week 9

If there’s one loss that stung more than any other in Bo Pelini’s first season at Youngstown State, it came against the team everybody else in the FCS is looking up to — five-time defending national champion North Dakota State.

YSU blew a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter, which included a meltdown by Pelini on the sideline. He and the Penguins (6-2, 4-1 Missouri Valley Football Conference) get a chance for redemption today.

The teams are part of a three-way tie for first place in the MVFC. The Bison (7-1, 4-1) are coming off narrow victories over Western Illinois and Northern Iowa. They still resemble the teams that won five-straight titles, with a stout defense and a physical offensive line, but they also look vulnerable.

Only problem for YSU is, it does too.

QUARTERBACKS

YSU — Hunter Wells looks like the newest man under center. Wells, a prototypical drop-back passer, is taking over for Ricky Davis, who has an undisclosed injury. His status is unknown for Saturday. Wells showed signs of rust in his first playing time of the season last week, completing 13-of-26 passes for 101 yards and two early interceptions, but he improved as the game went on. We’ll see if his timing and decision-making is better after another week of practice. It better be if YSU is going to compete with the Bison.

NDSU — Easton Stick had big shoes to fill as a freshman, stepping in for an injured Carson Wentz. He couldn’t have done much better, leading the Bison to an 8-0 record and back to the FCS title game before Wentz returned. He hasn’t slowed down much as a sophomore, completing 100-of-164 for 1,411 yards, 11 TDs and six interceptions. He’s also ran for 288 yards and three TDs on 67 carries (4.1 average).

EDGE — NDSU

RUNNING BACKS

YSU — Martin Ruiz had another big day against Indiana State, rushing for 151 yards and moving into fourth place on the Penguins’ all-time career rushing list with 3,848 yards.  Ruiz has re-established himself as one of the premier backs in the MVFC with 695 yards (second in the league) and seven TDs in his senior year. Jody Webb (297 yards, zero TDs) continues to lose carries to sophomore Tevin McCaster (380 yards, five TDs).

NDSU — Not many teams execute the running-back-by-committee approach better than NDSU. King Frazier (5-11, 212) leads a three-headed attack with 579 yards and eight TDs. He suffered a rib injury early in last week’s victory over UNI. X-rays were negative, so he could be back. If not, look for Lance Dunn (96 carries, 496 yards, 2 TDs) to carry the load, with help from Chase Morlock. All are big, powerful backs.

EDGE — Even

RECEIVERS

YSU — The disconnect between the receivers and the QB is still a work in progress, especially with Wells only having one start under his belt. It’s been a year-long problem, and the wide-outs haven’t done a great job creating seperation from defensive backs. Major progress is needed for YSU to be a legitimate national title contender. Alvin Bailey leads YSU with just 13 catches.

NDSU — Sophomore Darrius Shepherd is relied on heavily in NDSU’s passing attack. He leads the Bison in catches (27), receiving yards (390) and is tied for touchdowns (3). He’s emerged as the Bison’s top target over RJ Urzendowski, a 6-0, 194-pound junior who led NDSU in catches, yards and TDs last year. Urzendowski has 19 receptions, 365 yards and two TDs.

EDGE — NDSU

OFFENSIVE LINE

YSU — This unit bounced back from a rough performance two weeks ago, not yielding a sack against Indiana State. YSU leads the league by amassing 237.8 yards rushing per game. The line has routinely wore down opposing teams’ front line but has a major test with the Bison.

NDSU — Always one of the most vaunted fronts in the nation, the Bison line is again big and physical. Zack Johnson (6-4, 330) is one fo the best guards in the conference, and he’s surrounded by a veteran group that averages 6-6, 307 pounds. NDSU has allowed just 11 sacks and is second in the MVFC by averaging 223.4 yards rushing per game.

EDGE — Even

DEFENSIVE LINE

YSU — This group is as talented as YSU has had in some time. Aside from standout ends Avery Moss and Derek Rivers, the inexperienced sophomores at tackle have performed well, and a steady rotation allows for a constant pass rush. The line’s ability to stuff the run — while facing a monstrous o-line – will be put to the test today.

NDSU — Defensive end Greg Menard (6-2, 240) is one of the top lineman in the country. The All-American and first-team MVFC player has 6.5 sacks and 8.5 TFLs. He’ll be a major test for an offensive line that’s allowed 14 sacks through seven games. Fellow end Brad Ambrosius is solid on the opposite side, with four sacks and 5.5 TFLs. Tackles Nate Tanguay and Aaron Steidl are both returning starters that round out an impressive front four.

EDGE — Even

LINEBACKERS

YSU — While Armand Dellovade is an every-down player at middle linebacker, Jaylin Kelly and Jamar Pinnock usually only play in run situations. There should be plenty of those against the Bison. All three are experienced and capable, but their conditioning could be something to keep an eye one late in the game.

NDSU — The loss of linebacker Nick DeLuca to a season-ending shoulder injury was devastating. The senior was one of the top LBs in the country and an NFL prospect. And yet still, the Bison have one of the top defenses in the country. Senior MJ Stumpf (6-2, 220) is second on NDSU with 50 tackles and is tied with Menard with 8.5 tackles for loss. Pierre Gee-Tucker is another returning starter.

EDGE — NDSU

SECONDARY

YSU — Last Saturday was another impressive performance by a group that’s leading the MVFC by allowing just 173.2 yards passing per game. The safeties and corners are working in tandem to create a blanket of coverage. Safety Jameel Smith had a career day last week with two interceptions.

NDSU — The Bison are slightly inexperienced at corner, but they possess two of the best safeties in the conference. Free safety Tre Dempsey leads the MVFC with five interceptions, while strong safety Robbie Grimsley is having a great sophomore season after playing extensively as a true freshman. He leads NDSU with 54 tackles and is tied for second with three interceptions.

EDGE — YSU

SPECIALISTS

YSU — Darien Townsend’s 79-yard punt return could be the play of the year for YSU. It saved an ineffective offense and help the Penguins get a must-win. Plack-kicker Zak Kennedy has been inconsistent, making 10-of-15.

NDSU — North Dakota State’s punter and place-kicker are not having great years. Punter Jackson Koonce has a league-worst average of 37.1 yards per punt, while place-kicker Cam Pedersen has made just 8-of-13 field goals. He does have a long of 51. The Bison haven’t been great on kick and punt returns either, but they could get back return specialist Eric Perkins could return from injury this week.

EDGE — Even

PREDICTION

Two teams with similar styles will try to impose that approach onto the other in what should be a defensive battle.

The biggest edge for the Bison has to be at quarterback, with Easton Stick being an accomplished player as both a passer and a runner. If YSU can get him out of rhythm early on to even things up, this game will be interesting. For it to be interesting, the Penguins MUST create more offense, especially through the air. Wells should be better after getting a game under his belt. The receivers need to help out.

NDSU, 20-10.

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