Penguins out to extend home win streak

YOUNGSTOWN — One of the longest winning streaks in NCAA football will come to an end Saturday when Youngstown State plays North Dakota State — regardless of who wins.

The eighth-ranked Penguins come in with an 11-game home winning streak, the third longest active streak in the nation. NDSU, ranked No. 2, has won 11 consecutive road games, the best mark in the FCS.

Keeping the streak alive isn’t what motivates YSU (3-2, 1-1 Missouri Valley Football Conference). Simply not allowing another team to win at Stambaugh Stadium is what drives the Penguins.

“There’s just something about it, if you ever lose at home — it hurts a little more,” YSU senior offensive lineman Justin Spencer said. “We want to protect our home turf as much as possible. We’ll have to play a good game to do that.”

They will, indeed.

The Bison, winners of five of the last six FCS Championships, are 5-0 (2-0 in the MVFC) and, ironically, are the last team to beat YSU at home, winning 27-24 in 2015. NDSU knows a thing or two about home winning streaks, too. The Bison won 33 straight at the FargoDome (from 2012 to 2014), the longest mark in FCS history.

YSU’s players said they’re especially happy to be playing NDSU in Youngstown, in part because the FargoDome is one of the nation’s loudest stadiums, making communication difficult. Communication is vital to the offensive line and the secondary, where players must inform teammates of different fronts and formations. Those two areas struggled in last week’s 31-28 loss at sixth-ranked South Dakota (six sacks by USD and 360 passing yards) and must improve against one of the nation’s best teams.

“The o-line is unique because it’s not about one guy going to make a play,” Spencer said. “All five play every snap together and they have to play well (every snap) or else something bad happens — you get a sack or a negative run. As a unit, we have to play better.”

The secondary may not have as much to worry about against NDSU. The Bison throw the ball the least amount of any team in the conference, but that’s mainly because they run it so well.

NDSU leads the nation in yards per carry (6.7) and rushing touchdowns (23). They Bison also are tied for first in the FCS with 318.6 yards per game, led by leading rusher Lance Dunn (566 yards, 12 TDs).

The Penguins don’t anticipate making any major schematic changes to the defense. Safety Kyle Hegedus, YSU’s leading tackler, said they’re taking a simpler approach.

“Coach said tackling is going to be one of the big focuses this week,” Hegedus said. “I assume that we’re really going to prep for that. They (the Bison) have always had good running backs, good quarterbacks, so we’ve got to be ready for the run game and the pass game and any other thing that comes along with it.”

The Bison have plenty to worry about as well. While they’ve dominated teams to this point, outscoring opponents 258 to 31, they have only faced one ranked team (No. 10 Eastern Washington), and they have yet to face one with the type of running attack as the Penguins.

YSU is eighth in the FCS by averaging 268 rushing yards per game, and their 17 rushing TDs are fourth best.

“If we do, we’re going to get whipped,” said NDSU coach Chris Klieman when asked about how the Bison haven’t overlooked teams this year. “They’re a really good football team. Our guys are really bright kids. They know the tall task we have with Youngstown, going to Youngstown. We played there two years ago, and it was as physical a game as we had played. They’re really good up front on both sides of the ball, and they have good skill, so we know the tall order we have this week.”

The game, one of the premier matchups in the FCS, is at 7 p.m. The Penguins are hoping for a crowd similar to the 17,450 who showed up two weeks ago against South Dakota State. Either way, YSU’s players expect to keep their home winning trend in tact.

“Every time we step on that field, there’s obviously a standard,” Hegedus said of Stambaugh Stadium. “We don’t want to lose at home. We’ll definitely have the home-field advantage, which is something that helps you in the long run. We take pride in defending our home.”