YOUNGSTOWN -- It didn't take long for Youngstown State's players to understand this much: That wasn't Lock Haven or Clarion in those purple and white uniforms Saturday night.
Western Illinois, a.k.a., Transfer U., was a few degrees stronger, a few pounds heavier and several steps faster than what the Penguins faced in weeks one and two.
And that made a difference for, oh, about a quarter and a half.
With an impressive Gateway Conference victory already under their belts over Western Kentucky, the Leathernecks came to the Ice Castle full of confidence.
They also came in following a layoff of 23 days and it showed.
Some bad things: And while the Penguins made a few missteps of their own on offense -- the passing game wasn't real sharp, the line allowed quarterback Jeff Ryan to take some shots and the rushing game was inconsistent at times -- that can probably be blamed as much on YSU's longer than expected layoff as anything.
Instead, it was a couple of goal line stands by the defense -- stopping the Leathernecks on fourth-and-2 and then watching a missed 28-yard field goal -- and a blocked punt by the special teams that really seemed to ignite the home team.
And while B.J. Alan provided the post-game fireworks, P.J. Mays took care of the thunder and lightning in the second quarter, scoring a pair of touchdowns that put the Penguins in control.
His first score, after catching a pass from Jeff Ryan, demonstrated the kind of talent Mays showed at East High and made him a highly-sought after recruit.
First, he ran over Western Illinois' Ryle Irish at about the 30-yard line. Then, at about the 5, he left Antwian Davis flat-footed with a nifty sidestep move on his way to the end zone.
That touchdown gave the Penguins a 14-0 lead, comfortable enough for a game of this magnitude.
Key plays: But, it was a series of plays that consumed just over one minute that put all but the final outcome in doubt.
On Western Illinois' second play after the touchdown, LaVar Greene intercepted a pass and returned the ball to the Leathernecks' 6. Two plays after that, Mays was back in the end zone, the Penguins had a 21-0 lead.
That score in particular seemed to really deflate Western Illinois and it didn't seem to improve after the intermission.
Youngstown State kept the momentum on its first drive of the second half, moving 49 yards in eight plays for a 27-0 lead.
Greene's second interception of the game, which he returned for a touchdown, made it 34-0 early in the fourth quarter and at that point Western Illinois was looking for whatever methods necessary to keep the clock moving and get out of town as quickly as possible.
What made this victory so impressive was the recent history of this series -- Western Illinois had won four of the last five meetings, including three of the four in Youngstown State's history in the Gateway Conference.
Meatgrinder: The win should also give YSU some real confidence as it continues its midseason, seven-week meatgrinder through the Gateway.
As impressive as they looked in Saturday's win, the Penguins face two important road tests; next weekend at Northern Iowa and the following Saturday at Indiana State.
Then come three straight home games against teams that should be among the upper echelon of the conference -- Southwest Missouri State, Illinois State and Western Kentucky.
By the time the Penguins travel to Southern Illinois to finish the conference season on Nov. 3, they should have a pretty good idea of their conference championship and I-AA playoff chances.
YSU coach Jon Heacock isn't worried about all of that just yet though. He's big on preparing for the moment, and right now that means Northern Iowa.
At least, he doesn't have to wait another 14 days.
XRob Todor is sports editor of The Vindicator. Write him at email@example.com.