Penguins play host to top-5 matchup

YOUNGSTOWN — Some followers of the Missouri Valley Football Conference say South Dakota State University is slowly becoming the class of the league.

Others shrug off their obvious talent and recent success and quickly point to North Dakota State, which won five straight FCS Championships prior to last season.

Then there’s Youngstown State, a juggernaut in the 1990s slowly making its way back toward the top after a postseason run to the title game last year.

A little more light will be shed on the debate come Saturday, when No. 4 SDSU travels to Stambaugh Stadium for a 7 p.m. matchup with fifth-ranked YSU. It marks the first top-five matchup in Youngstown since 1997.

The showdown is one that Penguins coach Bo Pelini believes will bring a lively atmosphere.

“I’m hoping that there’s a really good crowd on Saturday,” Pelini said. “Hopefully we’re at that point where people understand that there’s some pretty good football being played over here. There’s going to be a good football game being played Saturday night. I’d put it up against any football game that’s going to be going on in the country. People need to understand that these two football teams, BCS conference or non-BCS conference, can line up and beat a lot of football teams out there.”

These two are certainly some of the best in the MFVC.

The Jackrabbits (3-0) were co-champions of the league with NDSU last year as each endured one loss. YSU was third with a 6-2 conference mark but outlasted both in the playoffs (the Bison lost in the semifinals and SDSU fell in the quarterfinals, to NDSU).

Saturday’s matchup boasts some of the elite talent in the FCS. The Jackrabbits possess two offensive players (tight end Dallas Goedert and wide receiver Jake Wieneke) who are projected to be picked fairly high in next year’s NFL Draft. They join one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in Taryn Christion to create a multi-faceted offense.

The Penguins (2-1) had two defensive players selected in last year’s draft, and while there’s been an infusion of new players, they’ve maintained a high level of play on both sides of the ball, with their only loss being a 28-21 overtime defeat to the University of Pittsburgh. They’ve outscored their other two opponents 89-9.

Players said the level of intensity goes up another notch now that conference play begins, with the league champion receiving an automatic bid to the playoffs.

“It’s kind of do-or-die now,” YSU offensive lineman Justin Spencer said. “There’s never an easy game in our conference, so you always have to attack it like it’s the top team you’re ever going to play. It’s more serious. Like I said, it’s do-or-die. There’s no room for mistakes now, so we’ve got to play our best football.”

The likely return of quarterback Hunter Wells should help in that regard. The senior missed most of the last two games with a shoulder injury, but following the bye week, Pelini said “everybody’s ready to go” when asked about Wells’ health.

The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Wells was a major catalyst during last year’s run to the title game, and players said he brings a different feel to the huddle.

“Hunter, he runs the field. He runs the huddle. He’s good at that,” Spencer said. “(Backup Nathan) Mays comes in, and it’s not that he’s not a leader. He’s a leader, but he’s still feeling things out. There’s a little bit of a difference (between the two). Hunter just has more experience.”

The Penguins need all the advantages they can get. SDSU has won eight of the last nine meetings and hasn’t lost in Youngstown in 10 years.

If YSU wants to return to being one of the elite teams in the FCS on an annual basis, they know the climb back to the top starts by dethroning one of the perennial powers in the MVFC.

“Since (beating) Central Connecticut State, it’s all we’ve been thinking about,” Spencer said. “It’s not very often that you get a top-five matchup here, so we’re ready to go. We’re just really excited for it.”