By Joe Scalzo
One of Jim Tressel’s favorite sayings at Youngstown State was, “November is for contenders.”
On Saturday, his former team looked like pretenders.
With an FCS playoff berth on the line, South Dakota State manhandled YSU’s offensive and defensive lines, rolling up 482 yards (including 341 on the ground) en route to a 42-13 victory at Stambaugh Stadium.
“Probably the most frustrating thing for us as a program right now is the way we were handled at the line of scrimmage today,” said YSU coach Eric Wolford, who dropped to 0-4 against the Jackrabbits. “I think it was pretty glaring on both sides of the ball.”
Playing in cold, windy conditions — Stambaugh Stadium looked like the inside of a snow globe by the second half — Youngstown State had no answer for SDSU’s Zach Zenner (he ran 29 times for 186 yards and two TDs) or QB Austin Sumner (he completed 15 of 19 for 170 yards and two TDs).
The Jackrabbits went 81 yards in seven plays to score on the opening drive and went 80 yards or more on their next two scoring drives, taking a 21-6 lead late in the second quarter that felt even larger.
The win officially moves SDSU (8-4, 5-3 Missouri Valley) into a tie with YSU (8-4, 5-3) for second in the conference standings, but Saturday’s game made it clear which team was better.
“I think the weather was a bit of a factor because our guys thrive on adversity,” South Dakota State coach John Stiegelmeier said. “I don’t know about their team but I know it didn’t hurt us.”
The loss — YSU’s third straight — put a serious dent in the Penguins’ playoff hopes and revealed the same problems that have plagued them during Wolford’s four-year tenure: poor defense, poor performance in big games and an inability to right the ship when things go south.
Afterward, Wolford tried to argue that YSU still deserves a playoff berth — his argument essentially rests on the Penguins being the third-best team from the nation’s best conference — and they’ll officially learn their fate at 11:30 a.m. today when the selections are announced on ESPNU.
“Does 8-4 get us in? I don’t know,” Wolford said. “We had a chance to control our destiny today and we didn’t do it.”
Playing perhaps his final game as a Penguin, senior quarterback Kurt Hess completed just 9 of 19 passes for 138 yards, a TD and two interceptions, which led to 14 South Dakota State points.
Hess holds nearly every career passing record in YSU history, but he seems likely to end his career without playing in a playoff game.
“This stinks. This hurts,” said Hess, who played the whole game on an injured ankle. “I’d love to play another one.”
Freshman running back Martin Ruiz, who entered the game with the highest per-game average in the conference, was a non-factor, rushing 12 times for 26 yards and YSU’s high-powered offense was held to just 213 yards — more than 200 below its average.
YSU has increased its wins every season under Wolford, winning three his first year, then six, then seven, then eight. But, like they did two years ago against Missouri State, the Penguins laid an egg in their home finale with the playoffs on the line.
When asked if he’s satisfied with where his program stands in Year 4, Wolford said, “I’ll never be satisfied until we’re playing for a championship and I don’t think you can ever settle, but I think it’s very clear that we’ve made a bunch of progress.
“We’re in the upper echelon of the conference now. We’re not at the bottom, we’re not at the middle. We’ve worked our way to the top. We’ve got to find a way to take that next step to get to that 1-2 spot.”