By Joe Scalzo
The last time Youngstown State played in Terre Haute, the Penguins spent the game’s first 10 minutes looking uglier than Larry Bird’s permafro.
Relying on a Vince Lombardi-era playbook, Indiana State running back Shakir Bell gashed YSU’s defense for 62- and 39-yard touchdowns on his first two carries, then added 61- and 51-yard touchdowns later in the first half as Bird’s alma mater rolled up a 34-14 lead.
YSU dominated ISU down the stretch but the damage was done, as Bell finished with 256 yards — mostly on toss sweeps and off-tackle plays — and the Penguins lost their first game at Memorial Stadium in 12 trips.
“We all know who Mr. Bell is,” YSU coach Eric Wolford said this week.
Question is, can YSU find where Mr. Bell is.
In last year’s regular-season finale, at Stambaugh Stadium, the Penguins held Bell (who looked less than 100 percent) to 54 yards on 18 carries.
“We did a great job containing him,” senior LB Dom Rich said.
If they can do it again, they’ll reverse what’s become a troubling trend under Wolford, who is 3-0 in conference openers and 0-6 in the ensuing two weeks.
“The momentum that we do feel, we need to use it productively,” said YSU quarterback Kurt Hess, who led the Penguins to a 28-27 come-from-behind victory over Southern Illinois last week. “We can’t let it distract us, we can’t let it become something that’s going to take away from our goals. We need to use it constructively.
“Momentum, I think can work either way, so we definitely need to use it as a positive instead of letting it take away from what we’re going to do.”
Indiana State (1-3) is in its first season under Mike Sanford, who replaced Trent “miracle worker” Miles.
From 2008-12, Miles resurrected the Sycamores’ program, snapping a 33-game losing streak in 2009, his second season. A year later, he led the Sycamores to their first road victory in seven years (over YSU, no less) and finished 6-5 for ISU’s first winning season since 1996.
After two more winning seasons, Miles left for Sun Belt-member Georgia State in the offseason, leaving Sanford with an NFL-caliber running back and a brutal schedule.
ISU lost to Big Ten-members Indiana (73-35) and Purdue (20-14) to open the season, then fell to Tennessee Tech last week in a loss that Sanford called “heart-breaking.”
With winnable home games against Illinois State and Western Illinois looming, YSU has a chance to build a nice playoff resume before finishing the season against the Missouri Valley’s three best teams.
It starts today against ISU.
“This is a good challenge for us,” Rich said of ISU. “We’ll see how well we carry over the momentum from last week into this week.”