Bison too much for banged-up Penguins
By Joe Scalzo
On Saturday, the Youngstown State football team discovered it can’t beat the nation’s best team without starting quarterback Kurt Hess.
Can the Penguins make the playoffs without him?
They’d rather not find out.
Battling a right ankle injury, Hess played just three series and the Penguins played most of the second half with their third-string quarterback in a 35-17 loss to North Dakota State at Stambaugh Stadium.
“I felt like we had our opportunities, regardless of what our quarterback situation was,” YSU coach Eric Wolford said. “It would have been interesting to see [what would have happened] if we had Kurt Hess the whole time. It really would have been.”
Hess injured the ankle in the third quarter of last week’s loss to UNI and finished that game, but he practiced sparingly this week, splitting reps with backup Dante Nania.
After leading the Penguins to a touchdown on their opening drive, Hess played just three more plays in the first half before giving way to Nania at the beginning of the second quarter.
“I tried to push it today,” said Hess, who said he had a sprain with some ligament damage. “I still need to progress a little bit more.”
Nania led the Penguins to a field goal just before halftime but injured his shoulder on a late hit by Bison DE Cole Jirik on the half’s second-to-last play. (Jirik was flagged for roughing the passer.)
Nania started the second half but was ineffective, losing a fumble on the first series before Hess tried to return. The Penguins lost one yard in three plays with Hess, prompting Wolford to turn to redshirt freshman Tanner Garry, a former walk-on from Bowling Green who transferred to YSU in the spring.
“That’s probably my stubborness,” Hess said of re-entering the game. “I wanted to push myself.”
Garry had two good series, leading the Penguins into field goal range on the first one (the 44-yard attempt was blocked), then throwing a pretty 24-yard TD pass to TE Nate Adams on fourth-and-2 to cut YSU’s deficit to 28-17 with 18 seconds left in the third quarter.
But after YSU’s defense forced a punt on the ensuing series, Garry made a freshman mistake, passing up a checkdown to running back Jody Webb in favor of airmailing a deep ball that was easily intercepted by free safety Christian Dudzik.
From there, the Bison went 72 yards on a game-clinching drive, which was capped by a 1-yard TD run by Bison quarterback Brock Jensen.
“A loss like this stings,” YSU linebacker Dom Rich said. “Kurt’s a great leader and he manages the offense well, but we all had faith in Dante and Tanner and whoever was going to play.
“We’re a family here. Whoever’s in there, they’ve got our support and I hope they have the fan support as well.”
Hess said the chances are “very good” he will play in next week’s regular season finale against South Dakota State.
The Penguins (8-3, 5-2 Missouri Valley) have the league’s second-best record, but Hess believes they need to beat the Jackrabbits to make the playoffs.
“Absolutely, it’s do or die,” he said. “If we win, we deserve to be in the playoffs. If we lose, we don’t deserve to be in the playoffs.”