Loss sharpens focus for arrival of Bison

YOUNGSTOWN — Just knowing that North Dakota State is up next on the schedule is usually more than enough to catch a team’s attention.

A tough loss the week before is making preparation even more intense for Youngstown State.

The eighth-ranked Penguins welcome the second-ranked Bison to Stambaugh Stadium for their third top-10 matchup in as many weeks at 7 p.m. Saturday.

YSU is coming off its first Missouri Valley Football Conference defeat (and first loss to an FCS team) after falling, 31-28, to South Dakota, now ranked No. 4. The Penguins hope to take out their frustrations on a team that’s been the class of the FCS for most of the past decade, with NDSU winning five of the last six national championships.

“Sometimes you have those losses,” YSU safety Kyle Hegedus said of losing to South Dakota. “It’s like a slap in the face, but sometimes teams need it. Our attitude coming into the game probably wasn’t the best, but now that we lost to a team that we should have beat, it definitely humbled us, and we can use that. We’ve got to come in now with a better expectation, a better attitude, especially with North Dakota State coming in this week. We’re definitely going to use it as some motivation.”

The Penguins (3-2, 1-1) need all the momentum they can harness against the Bison (5-0, 2-0).

NDSU has been steamrolling teams thus far, owning a point differential of 258 to 31. The offense, while balanced, is mostly fueled by a power run game that accentuates an enormous, veteran offensive line and one of the nation’s leading running backs.

Junior Lance Dunn (5-foot-9, 210 pounds) is averaging 10.1 yards per carry and leads the MVFC in yards (566) and touchdowns (12) on just 55 carries. In comparison, YSU’s Tevin McCaster is second in the MVFC with 536 yards and eight TDs. He did it on 107 carries.

“It’s definitely a big challenge on our part,” Hegedus said. “We really respect them, but we don’t fear them at all. Playing them at home is really big. Having the crowd behind our back is definitely better than having their crowd behind their back.”

As impressive as the Bison have been, they have only faced one ranked team (a 40-13 victory over No. 9 Eastern Washington). The Penguins are in the midst of a grueling stretch in which they will play the Nos. 2, 4, 7 and 15 ranked teams in consecutive weeks. They’re going through it without starting quarterback Hunter Wells, who first injured his shoulder against Robert Morris on Sept. 9 and then re-injured it against South Dakota State on Sept. 30. YSU coach Bo Pelini said Wells is “50-50” to play versus the Bison.

Quarterback play isn’t Pelini’s lone focus after a performance he wasn’t happy about against South Dakota. A secondary that allowed nearly 400 passing yards and an offensive line that gave up six sacks were specific areas that endured some struggles, but Pelini said he expects improvement all over.

“When things show up in practice, and you don’t approach practice the right way …,” he said. “It could be technique. It could be some fundamentals. If you keep playing that way, it’s going to get you.

“Sometimes it takes what happened Saturday to get guys’ attention.”

YSU has enjoyed some success against the Bison, trailing the all-time series 7-4. However, NDSU has won the last five matchups, including a fourth-quarter collapse two years ago during Pelini’s first season as coach. That game included a bit of a sideline meltdown by Pelini that cost the Penguins field position after the Bison took a 27-24 lead in the final minutes.

That’s a distant memory for YSU, which supplanted NDSU as the conference representative in the title game last year and isn’t ready to give up its status as one of the nation’s best just yet.

“We have the potential to be very good, but you have to keep working to get there,” Pelini said. “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. You’ve got to keep getting better. … You can’t turn the light switch on and off. Sometimes it takes a reality check for guys to understand that.”