Difficult part of schedule begins now

YOUNGSTOWN — It’s a breath of fresh air to those who prefer an old-school style of play.

The battle in the trenches is fierce. The hitting is violent, and the most successful teams rely on two traditional pillars of football: defense and a consistent run game.

To use one word to describe the style that commences when Missouri Valley Football Conference play begins, turn to an offensive lineman.

“It’s physical,” said Youngstown State senior offensive tackle Justin Spencer.

The brutal part of the Penguins’ schedule starts at 7 p.m. Saturday at Stambaugh Stadium with a matchup of two teams ranked in the top five in the nation as No. 5 YSU (2-1) clashes with fourth-ranked South Dakota State University (3-0).

While the Jackrabbits are best known for having one of the most prolific offenses in the country, highlighted by three of the best skill players in the FCS (quarterback Taryn Christion, wide receiever Jake Wieneke and tight end Dallas Goedert), the men up front are what drives SDSU.

“We like to call ourselves the engine of the offense — we power it,” Jackrabbits senior offensive lineman Jacob Ohnesorge told The Collegian earlier this week, “but you can’t see it from the outside.”

The Penguins are no slouches in the trenches either. The offensive and defensive lines are what fueled their run to last year’s FCS Championship game, and they’re again powerful on both fronts, which is a must in the MVFC.

“There’s a bunch of teams in our conference that are really physical,” Spencer said. “South Dakota State’s obviously one of them. They have our respect from that aspect, so we’re going to have to come out and match their physicality and try to push them to match our physicality.”

The primetime contest starts a brutal — and critical — stretch for YSU, which then plays South Dakota (ranked 10th), North Dakota State (second), Northern Iowa (20th) and Illinois State (eighth) over the next four weeks.

The road can be daunting when looked at from that point of view, but YSU coach Bo Pelini believes he has instilled a day-by-day approach that keeps the Penguins focused on the task at hand. Right now, that’s the Jackrabbits, and nothing more.

“Our players, they don’t live with their head in the sand,” he said. “They know what the challenge is. They have the necessary respect for the opponent that’s coming in here, so that gets your attention and makes you prepare that much harder to get ready to go.”

The Penguins appear to be getting healthy at the right time as well.

The only major injury was to starting quarterback Hunter Wells, who suffered what was reported to be a separated shoulder on Sept. 9 against Robert Morris. He practiced this week and is “ready to go,” according to Pelini.

Most of the pressure will be on the defense this week as SDSU can attack from several different areas. Despite their weapons in the pass game, the Jackrabbits have gouged YSU in the run game in years past. They’ve also been able to jump on opponents early in games and force them to play catch-up.

The matchup isn’t anything new for a YSU team that played an FCS-record 16 games last season, facing some of the best offenses in the country. The key, again, starts and ends with toughness.

“You have to be physical, first off,” said Penguins linebacker Lee Wright of being matched up against SDSU’s skill players. “You can’t allow them a free release (off the ball). You can’t allow them to get into the groove of the game. You can’t let them get into a rhythm. You’ve got to be tough on them early in the game.

“They’re really a tough offense with a lot of key players, so you can’t just key in on one person,” he added. “You’ve got to be fundamentally sound on defense.”

The Penguins have won 10 straight at home but haven’t beaten SDSU in Youngstown since 2007.