By Joe Scalzo
This wasn’t Valparaiso. Or St. Francis. Or the Little Sisters of the Poor.
On Saturday afternoon, Youngstown State played a full-scholarship Missouri Valley Football Conference team that made the playoffs last season and issued the type of beating that left their opponent’s daddies hurting.
The final score was YSU 56, Western Illinois 14 but it felt like the Penguins should have had at least one comma.
“Obviously, it was a good day for all the Penguins, and we’ll take it,” YSU coach Eric Wolford said. “We have a 24-hour [celebration] rule and we’ll move forward from there.
“We know what lies ahead.”
Kurt Hess threw just 11 passes, completed eight and finished with four touchdowns for YSU (5-3, 3-2), which enters this weekend’s road game against Northern Iowa on a three-game winning streak.
“If I have  attempts, we’re playing well,” Hess said, smiling. “I’ll take it.”
Added Wolford, “Did you want us to throw some more?”
YSU scored on five of its first six possessions and Western Illinois fumbled away the only punt in that sequence, leading to a touchdown. Hess hit freshman Christian Bryan for a 70-yard TD on the game’s first play and hit Jelani Berassa for a 69-yarder on the last play of the first quarter.
The Leathernecks’ first eight possessions, meanwhile, ended in either a punt, a fumble or an interception and the ninth ended with the clock running out on the first half. Their two touchdowns came after YSU had started playing its backups.
“I was excited to see us play four quarters of football and I was excited to see us play all three phases of the game,” Wolford said. “I think you see this team is starting to jell a little bit.”
In fairness, the Leathernecks entered the game with a 2-5 record and were coming off a loss to previously-winless Missouri State. But after a frustrating 2010 that saw the Penguins lose their final seven conference games, YSU fans don’t need to qualify their happiness. They can enjoy this one.
“We take the approach that it’s not really about who we play,” Wolford said. “It’s not about Michigan State, it’s not about Valparaiso, it’s not about Illinois State. It’s really about how we play.
“We can’t get caught up in who the competition is.”
The 56 points were the most scored by YSU in a conference game and the five touchdown passes (backup Marc Kanetsky had the other) tied a school record. YSU’s defense had two interceptions, the punt coverage team recovered two fumbles and the Penguins held a conference opponent under 20 points for the first time in the Wolford era.
“We’ve still got a lot of growing to do,” said senior defensive end Daniel Stewart, who had seven tackles, including one for a loss. “But we’re starting to finish now.”
Three weeks after what looked like a season-crushing loss to South Dakota State, the Penguins have regrouped and now turn their attentions to the league’s second-best team, which holds an 11-game win streak in the series.
“It’s a huge game,” Wolford said. “Obviously, we haven’t fared well there [in Iowa] but we have confidence that we can play with anyone on our schedule.
“Since we’ve been here, I think we’ve consistently shown as a football team that we can play with anyone regardless of rankings. They’re a good football team, they’re well-coached and they’re gonna play hard. We’ll see what happens.”