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Scouting Report: Week 9

The on-again, off-again Youngstown State football team was at its best in a lopsided victory last week.

The Penguins better find a way to repeat that performance this week.

YSU welcomes No. 1-ranked North Dakota State to Stambaugh Stadium on Saturday with a chance to, again, secure a signature win in a season that is devoid of one.

The Bison (8-0, 4-0 Missouri Valley Conference) have been the premier team in the FCS for a decade. As always, they’re built around a dominant defense and a powerful running game. They have won an FCS-record 29 straight games coming into today.

The Penguins (5-3, 1-3) followed their worst game of the season (a 35-10 loss to Southern Illinois) with their best — a 59-14 thrashing of Western Illinois. That type of inconsistent play, which has haunted YSU for years, can’t surface against the Bison.

QUARTERBACKS

YSU — Nathan Mays had one of the better games of his career against the Leathernecks, throwing four TDs on 10-of-18 passing. That type of efficiency is exactly what YSU needs. Mays is a significantly better quarterback when YSU is running the ball well. If he’s throwing the ball more than 20 times per game, it’s probably not a good thing. Mays (and backup QB Joe Craycraft, who has played in every game) will need to be better than efficient to beat NDSU.

NDSU — Redshirt freshman Trey Lance has to be in the discussion for the Walter Payton Award (the FCS version of the Heisman). He leads the Bison in rushing with 563 yards and seven TDs on 84 carries. At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, he is difficult to tackle. He also has thrown 16 TDs without a single interception and is completing 68 percent of his passes (102-of-150) for 1,319 yards. The Bison offense hasn’t been clicking on all cylinders the last few games, but Lance makes them difficult to prepare for.

EDGE — NDSU

RUNNING BACKS

YSU — Joe Alessi was another Penguin who played one of the better games of his career last week, rushing for 156 yards and two TDs on 13 carries. His 657 rushing yards are third best in the MVFC. Braxton Chapman seems to be slowly becoming more of an option. He’s a big, bruising back. Alessi is another hard runner, but he has the speed to break long runs as well. Christian Turner, who started the first six games, is losing playing time as his skillset doesn’t appear to fit the offense.

NDSU — As usual, NDSU has a stable of good backs. Ty Brooks (5-9, 180) has 550 yards and a 7.4 yards-per-carry average. Adam Cofield is a bit bigger (5-11, 205), but he also has breakaway speed. They’re both hard to bring down. NDSU had some issues running the ball last week until breaking off a few long runs late in the game that sealed a big win over third-ranked South Dakota State. Keeping them in check for an entire game is the biggest challenge for YSU.

EDGE — Even

RECEIVERS

YSU — The receiving corps again showed it has the speed to beat defenses that are over-compensating to stop YSU’s run game. Jermiah Braswell snagged two more long TDs against WIU. He leads the Penguins in receptions (21), yards (449) and TDs (5). Slot receiver Ryan Emans has been consistent for much of the season (20 catches, 203 yards), and Miles Joiner continues to develop into a great pass-catching tight end.

NDSU — Phoenix Sproles leads a receiving corps that gets contributions from several players. Sproles leads in catches (19), yards (327) and is tied for TDs (2). He’s averaging 17.2 yards per catch, too. Christian Watson is averaging 15.6 yards per grab on 14 grabs. The Bison usually make big plays on play-action passes. When teams bring down safeties to help stop the run, wide receivers are winning one-on-one matchups.

EDGE — Even

OFFENSIVE LINE

YSU — The line is coming off one of its best games of the year, and it needs to build on it. NDSU has long been known to dominate the trenches on both sides of the ball. It’s the staple of their 10-year run of dominance. If YSU can’t establish the run, the Penguins will be in big trouble. The line must get a push up front for YSU to win this game.

NDSU — North Dakota State’s line is big, powerful and simply put, one of the best in the nation. Aside from averaging 6-5¢ and 310 pounds across the front, the Bison lead the MVFC in rushing (292.6 yards per game) and sacks allowed (seven through eight games). The next closest is Illinois State at 14. Guard Zack Johnson is an All-American, and tackle Dillon Radunz may soon be one too. They’ll be facing a stout YSU defensive front, but NDSU plays a brutal schedule, so it won’t be anything it hasn’t seen before.

EDGE — NDSU

DEFENSIVE LINE

YSU — YSU’s line continued its strong season last week. All four linemen have played well, with senior end Justus Reed leading the way with 8.5 sacks (second in MVFC) and 12 tackles for loss (third in MVFC). End Ma’lik Richmond has six sacks, tackle DeMarko Craig adds 11.5 TFLs and tackle Antoine Cook is a menace on the inside as well. They have an imposing matchup with a dominant NDSU offensive line.

NDSU — The Bison have a good combination of size and athleticism up front. It all centers around Derrek Tuszka, one of the better defensive ends in the league. He has a team-best 8.5 sacks and 10 TFLs and is quick off the edge. Several others contribute as NDSU has good depth in the trenches.

EDGE — YSU

LINEBACKERS

YSU — As expected, the linebackers have seen significantly more playing time since conference play began. They’ll hardly leave the field against the run-heavy Bison. MLB Ray Anderson is tied for the team lead with 41 tackles. Cash Mitchell is a hard-hitting outside ‘backer with 7.5 TFLs. Both Terray Bryant and Christan Randall-Posey have played well in spurts. They’ll need to be at their best to slow the Bison.

NDSU — The Bison have two of the better linebackers in the conference in Jabril Cox and Jackson Haney. Cox, who YSU coach Bo Pelini said will play in the NFL one day, is a highly acclaimed All-American who was the MVFC Defensive Player of the Year in 2018. He can do it all — tackle, play in coverage and rush the passer. He has 47 tackles, six TFLs, three sacks, one interceptions and five passes defended. Middle linebacker Jackson Hankey is having a superb sophomore year. Highly recruited out of high school, he has a team-high 50 stops along with 7.5 TFLs and one sack.

EDGE — NDSU

SECONDARY

YSU — The defensive backs had a good game for the first time in a long time. There have been numerous breakdowns throughout the season with a young group still working on communication, but maybe last week was a step in the right direction. Safety Kyle Hegedus is one the team’s leaders. He’s tied for the team lead in tackles (41) and also has two interceptions. Fellow safety Zaire Jones also has 41 tackles and two picks. Melvin Jackson has become YSU’s top corner, but Bryce Gibson and Dee Ford have endured some struggles.

NDSU — NDSU possesses one of the better secondaries in the nation as the Bison have yielded just four TD passes. Safety Michael Tutsie is tied for the MVFC lead with four picks. He’s second on the team with 49 tackles. Corner Marquise Bridges leads the league in passes defended (12), and free safety James Hendricks is second with 10. There isn’t a bad player in the secondary as corner Josh Hayes was just named the MVFC Defensive Player of the Week.

EDGE — NDSU

SPECIALISTS

YSU — Place kicker Colt McFadden has been solid all year. He is 4-of-5 with a long of 43, and has been consistent at a difficult stadium in which to kick. Redshirt freshman punter Nick DeSalvo, a Fitch product, is averaging 35.6 yards per punt — the worst mark in the conference. Punt returner Jake Coates is one of the best in the MVFC, with a TD and a 12.9-yard average.

NDSU — Freshman place kicker Griffin Crosa, a Dublin native, is 8-of-11 on field goals, with a long of 46. Punter Garret Wegner is averaging 41.4 yards per boot. Punt returner Trevor Heit leads the league with a 14.3 average. NDSU has not scored nor given up a kick return for a TD.

EDGE — NDSU

PREDICTION

While these two teams possess similar attributes, they also display major differences. YSU has been wildly inconsistent, while NDSU is the model of consistency. Which Penguins team shows up will be the key in this matchup.

It better be the one that just dominated Western Illinois because that is the only way YSU has a chance to win. This matchup will likely center around old-school tactics: running the football and stopping the run. NDSU has been excellent at both for most of the year, but it comes down to who does it better on Saturday.

Mays has played well against the Bison through his career, and he’ll need another great game, both running and passing. The defense must find a way to stuff the run and then rattle Lance.

It’s possible, and I’m going to take a chance on the Penguins finding a way. They’re certainly due for a big win.

YSU, 21-17.

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