By Joe Scalzo
At least once a week, Youngstown State coach Eric Wolford practices a two-minute drill where the Penguins are backed up near their own end zone with 1:16 on the clock and one timeout, needing a touchdown to win.
So, when the Penguins fell behind by three points to South Dakota with 2:07 left on Saturday, Wolford gathered them near the sideline and decided to lighten the mood.
“I said, ‘Boys, we got 2:07 here today, so that’s like an eternity from the 1:16 I normally give you,’” Wolford said. “’I need you to get 7 and we’re gonna put the extra point in, too.’
“So, I had a little fun with it. The kids got a smile. They think I’m half-nuts anyway.”
From there, YSU quarterback Kurt Hess went half-nuts, completing 3 of 4 passes for 43 yards as the Penguins drove 71 yards in eight plays to set up a first-and-goal at the South Dakota 3.
After Hess spiked the ball to stop the clock with 17 seconds left, offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery decided to take advantage of the timeout in his pocket and hand the ball to his freshman phenom, Martin Ruiz.
“I was just thinking, ‘Get in the end zone,’” Ruiz said. “When I saw the hole, I hit it.”
Ruiz busted through the middle of the line for the touchdown with 14 seconds left and YSU’s defense and special teams did the rest, holding on for a 38-34 victory at the DakotaDome that kept the Penguins perfect in Missouri Valley play.
“On the last drive, it was [senior center Chris] Elkins who came up to me on the sidelines and said, ‘I’m glad we have the ball in our hands,’” said Hess, who finished 22 of 26 for 283 yards and two touchdowns. “Obviously, as a quarterback you want to be smart so you’re thinking field goal in the back of your mind, but you’re out there telling your guys, ‘touchdown, touchdown.’”
Facing a Coyotes team that was giving up an average of 21.4 points and 297.5 yards per game, YSU (8-1, 5-0 MVFC) rolled up 517 total yards, overcoming three lost fumbles, including two by Hess.
“We played a little sloppy,” Hess said. “We got lucky. Statistics won’t lie on that one; usually the guys that lose the turnover battle 3-0 lose the game.”
Kevin Earl completed 16 of 31 passes for 219 yards and two TDs for the Coyotes (4-5, 3-3), who lost their first home game after three wins this season.
Christian Bryan caught four passes for 52 yards for the Penguins, including two huge ones on the final drive, and Michael Wheary added four catches for 42 yards and a TD.
Ruiz ran 23 times for 131 yards and two TDS and Jody Webb added 64 yards on five carries, one of them a 42-yard burst up the middle that gave YSU a 34-27 lead with 11:14 left.
South Dakota re-took the lead with 2:14 left on an 11-yard TD run by Jordan Roberts, setting up YSU’s winning drive.
“Football is about handling adversity,” said Webb, a redshirt freshman who also had two catches for 52 yards, including a 40-yard TD. “Everything’s not going to go your way and you have to make changes. You’ve got to overcome the wrongdoings of the game.
“If something’s not going too well, you can’t give up because it’s not over until it’s over. That’s what we did. We came out in the second half and made changes and came away with a win.”