By Joe Scalzo
The last time Youngstown State beat South Dakota State, the Jackrabbits were playing their first season in the Missouri Valley Conference, Eric Wolford was an offensive line coach for a Rose Bowl team and Dale Peterman was playing cornerback for Ohio’s second-best Division V team, the Ursuline Irish.
It was 2007.
“Yeah, 2007, that was a long time ago, wasn’t it?” said Wolford,Youngstown State’s head coach. “I don’t even know where I was in 2007. I think I was in Illinois, maybe.”
He was. Six years and two coaching stops later, Wolford is preparing for what might be the biggest game in the 15-game series.
The winner will earn a playoff berth. The loser will earn a sleepless night, hoping its resume impresses the playoff committee.
“We’ve simply talked about if we want to have a chance to be in the playoffs, you have to play every play like it’s your last,” SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said. “If you don’t ‘git er done,’ you’re done.”
Wolford agreed, saying, “I don’t think either team can approach it any differently.”
After a midseason swoon, SDSU (7-4, 4-3 Missouri Valley) enters Saturday’s game riding a three-game winning streak.
The Jackrabbits have historically been a run-first team and that proved true early in the year when they rode standout RB Zach Zenner for the first four weeks.
Zenner rolled up 742 yards in those games — three of them wins — while averaging 8.2 yards per carry.
But he hasn’t been the same running back since.
North Dakota State held Zenner to just 4 yards on eight carries and he’s averaging just 4.3 yards per carry in conference games and if you take away an 80-yard TD run against Western Illinois, that average drops to 3.8.
When asked if Zenner is the same back he was at the beginning of the year, Wolford gave a 60-second answer that had more hedges than Versailles.
“As a running back, and you see this a lot in pro football, you only have so many hits on your body,” Wolford said. “It’s a case where you have to look at the carries a guy had in his career. It’s a lot of wear and tear.”
Translation: No, Zenner isn’t, something Stiegelmeier has acknowledged in interviews.
Problem is, SDSU quarterback Austin Sumner has made a habit of shredding YSU’s defense. In two games against the Penguins, he’s completed 41 of 63 passes for 696 yards and nine touchdowns.
“We have a lot of really good quarterbacks in our conference and I’d definitely put him in the top three,” Peterman said of Sumner. “It’s going to be a big challenge for our secondary.”
Sumner leads the MVFC with 223.5 yards per game while wideout Jason Schneider leads the league in receptions (64) and yards (926) and is second in TDs (nine).
Led by senior linebacker R.C. Kilgore, who leads the conference with 111 tackles, the Jackrabbits have one of the league’s better defenses. They’re holding conference teams to 20.3 points per game (second-best to NDSU) and 316.1 yards per game (third-best).
By comparison, YSU is giving up 25.3 points per game in league contests (which ranks seventh out of 10 teams) and 417.3 yards (last).
“On the defensive side of the ball, once again Coach Stiegelmier’s got those guys playing at a high level,” Wolford said. “They’ve got a tough, physical group up front and once again they’re playing good on special teams, so obviously we’ll have an exciting game here on Saturday. We look forward to it.”