YSU plays host to Missouri State today at 6 p.m.
By BILL SULLIVAN
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
YOUNGSTOWN -- When is it too early to start watching the scoreboard?
This evening when the Missouri State football team plays Youngstown State at Stambaugh Stadium at 6 p.m., don't be surprised if the Penguins are keenly aware what the other six schools in the Gateway Conference are doing.
YSU (6-1, 3-0 Gateway) sits atop the league standings, tied with Western Kentucky (5-1, 3-0).
Although YSU knows it must not look ahead, four more wins would put the Penguins in the I-AA playoffs.
"It starts this Saturday," YSU coach Jon Heacock said of the Bears. "It's a very good football team coming in here.
"They play a stacked 4-3 defense with zone coverage in the back. They cheat people to get into the box to stop the run. We're going to have to find some ways to get them spread out a little bit and move the football."
The Penguins must still play Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois and Western Kentucky, all ranked teams.
"I have a lot of respect for the teams they've played -- Western Kentucky, Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa," Heacock said of Missouri State.
"We've got our work cut out. It's a great test for us. It's going to be a very physical game, a traditional Gateway game. The teams that have played them so far have thought they were very aggressive blocking. It's going to be everything you want it to be."
The Gateway champion earns an automatic berth in the Div. I-AA playoffs, likely playing its first game at home.
Western Kentucky is top ranked in the I-AA polls and plays at Western Illinois (2-5, 0-3).
That game starts at 4:05 p.m. and should be well into the second half when the YSU game starts.
Although Western Kentucky won easily last season, 45-3, Western Illinois had won three straight game in the series previously.
YSU plays at Northern Iowa (4-2, 2-1) next Saturday. Today at 1:30 p.m. UNI plays at Illinois St. (4-3, 1-2). UNI leads that all-time series 14-7 including last year's 41-14 decision.
Also, Southern Illinois (4-2, 2-1) plays at Indiana St. (0-7, 0-3) at 2 p.m. SIU has won two straight games in that series including 2004's battle, 59-10.
After last week's rally to beat Western Illinois, Heacock has seen the Penguins gain confidence in their ability.
"I think they believe they can win because of winning," he said.
"I think they both sensed it was getting down to the wire, I think there was a sense of urgency. I think there was just a sense at that point that we have to do it and we can. I think we're a little bit more of a veteran team and that allows us to do that."
Now, the Penguins know what they must do. Winning the Gateway title is still possible -- a feat YSU has never done -- but the first hurdle is to clear Missouri St. today.
"I think we know where we need to get better at," Heacock said.
"It's a long grind. You've got to stay consistent every single day and stay focused on the moment. You can't get caught up in all the things that are going on."