By ED PUSKAS
All you need to know about Eric Wolford’s coaching style was evident as Youngstown State drove ever closer to the Northern Iowa end zone late in Saturday’s fourth quarter.
The wild, back-and-fourth game between the Missouri Valley Conference rivals was coming to a head. There was a palpable sense that the team that had the ball last was going to win the game or at least force overtime.
Some coaches would have quit rolling the dice and dialed down the intensity. They would have worked the clock to leave UNI with little or no time for a final possession and set up for a potential game-winning field goal.
Field goal? Wolford?
Are you serious?
Field goal? That’s probably a term that is not in his vocabulary.
It wasn’t as the unbeaten Penguins were moving from their 31-yard line to the Panthers’ 26. It was third-and-3 and “field goal” was probably on the tips of lots of tongues at Stambaugh Stadium.
But that’s not how Wolford rolls and it’s not how YSU — by extension — rolls now that his identity and that of the Penguins are one.
That identity is more riverboat gambler than arch-conservative.
“It’s a mentality that you have to have,” Wolford said. “I probably learned that from Coach [Steve] Spurrier. Coach Spurrier taught me a lot in the 9 Ω months I was with him. You got to let it all out there. You can’t be afraid. You can’t be conservative. That’s not our mentality.”
Wolford admits he has tried playing things close to the vest. He said it didn’t work.
“We’ve lost too many close games here and there by me being conservative sometimes and we’re not going to be a conservative team,” he said.
It’s easier to take chances and go for the jugular when your quarterback is Kurt Hess, who was 20 of 28 for 290 yards and four touchdowns. Hess seemed to make all the right decisions against UNI, including two critical fourth-down completions — one on a game-tying, fourth-quarter drive.
That trend continued after YSU (4-0, 1-0 Missouri Valley Football Conference) forced a punt and took over at its 31 with 6:11 to play. Hess converted a third-and-5 from midfield by stepping up to avoid pressure and waiting for Andre Stubbs to come open over the middle for a gain of 18 to the Panthers’ 33. After tailback Jamaine Cook ran twice for seven yards, the Penguins faced a third-and-3 from the 26.
Field goal? Not a chance.
Instead, Hess delivered a laser strike to wideout Christian Bryan, who split two defenders and scored the touchdown that gave YSU its first victory over UNI since 2000.
The last Penguins coach to beat the Panthers was Jim Tressel, who did it in his final season at YSU.
Hess said the Penguins have been coached to make the right decisions in critical situations.
“It’s about learning to trust your teammates,” he said. “We’ve been coached that way. [Coach Shane] Montgomery has done a great job preparing me for these situations and I know I can trust my teammates to be there, too.”
That growth is one reason Wolford has been able to take more chances as a coach and change the Penguins’ mentality in his three seasons at YSU.
It’s the big reason the Penguins went for the kill shot instead of playing it safe.