By Joe Scalzo
A month into the season, the biggest thing that separates Youngstown State and Indiana State is an extra point.
The Penguins (4-1) rallied to beat Southern Illinois, 28-27, last Saturday thanks to a missed Saluki extra point. The Sycamores (1-3) lost at Tennessee Tech, 38-37, on Saturday after missing an extra point.
“Basically, in my mind, it was a heart-breaking loss,” Indiana State’s first-year head coach Mike Sanford said. “It’s very difficult because we out-statisticed them in a lot of different ways.
“It was frustrating and disappointing to lose that game.”
Thanks to back-to-back losses to Indiana (73-35) and Purdue (20-14) to open the season, Indiana State now opens Missouri Valley play with little wiggle room. The Sycamores probably can’t afford more than one league loss if they want to make the postseason, which makes Saturday’s homecoming game against YSU crucial.
“We’ve got to find a way to bounce back from last game,” Sanford said. “It’s a huge game for us.”
YSU ended last season with a 27-6 victory over the Sycamores, holding all-conference running back Shakir Bell to 54 yards on 18 carries just one year after Bell had shredded the Penguins’ defense for 256 yards. Indiana State entered that game on the preseason bubble and the loss ended their hopes.
“It was a huge game for a lot of older players from last year because had they won, they would have gone to the playoffs,” Sanford said.
Bell, now a senior, missed 21/2 games this season with a separated shoulder but returned last week and rushed for 201 yards against Tennessee Tech. He also had 68 yards receiving.
“He’s a great back,” YSU linebacker Dom Rich said. “He’s shifty, he’s fast, he runs hard. We’ll have our hands full with him.”
QB Mike Perish has completed 88 of 143 passes for 1,041 yards, 10 touchdowns and five interceptions for the Sycamores, who lead the MVFC in passing yards per game.
Defensively, ISU plays a 3-4 front, but linebacker Connor Underwood is more of a defensive end. Underwood tied school records in last week’s loss with four sacks and six tackles for loss and is the key to their scheme. If he can pressure YSU quarterback Kurt Hess — something that rarely happens, regardless of the opponents — it changes the way the Penguins want to play.
“He plays the way the game should be played,” YSU coach Eric Wolford said of Underwood. “He’s relentless.”
If YSU has a clear edge, it’s mental. The Penguins are coming off a huge win, one that clears a path for them to make the playoffs if they can take care of business over the next month against the bottom half of the conference.
“Starting from the bus ride home, everyone was in a good mood,” Rich said. “The momentum has carried over to the beginning of this week. Everything has gone smooth. Everything’s easier. It’s easier to go to class. It’s easier to go out in public when you win. So I definitely think that momentum has shifted in the right direction for us.”