By Joe Scalzo
TERRE HAUTE, IND.
Heading into a key game against the conference’s top passing attack, Youngstown State freshman safety Jameel Smith kept repeating one message to his teammates during practice.
“All week I was stressing to the team, ‘I’m going to get me a pick,’” he said. “I kept saying, ‘I got to get me one, I got to get me one.’”
He got one.
Late in the first quarter, with Indiana State deep in YSU territory and the Penguins leading by just 4, Sycamores quarterback Mike Perish launched a third-down prayer into double coverage and Smith jumped it, returning it 95 yards for a touchdown.
From there, the Penguins stayed in control, pulling away for a 35-24 victory in a lightning-plagued game at Memorial Stadium.
“When I caught the pick, I saw my teammates coming at me, so I pointed and said, ‘Turn around the other way,’” said Smith, who made his way up the left sideline behind a wall of blockers. “Those guys really blocked well for me.”
It was the first time the Penguins (4-1, 2-0 Missouri Valley) won back-to-back road games under YSU coach Eric Wolford and the first time they started 2-0 in conference play under the fourth-year coach.
“We knew we’d get a good shot from them,” Wolford said of ISU. “Their coach has been talking about how they want to pay us back from last year, knocking them out of the playoffs [in the regular season finale].
“We fought through a tough game and did what we had to do.”
Two years after getting gashed by Shakir Bell, the Penguins stuffed both Bell (who was limited by an ankle injury) and his injury replacement, Buck Logan, holding the Sycamores to 86 yards rushing on 30 carries.
“We shut the run down,” Wolford said. “When you force a team to be one-dimensional, you might give up some yards but you’re not going to give up too many points.
“We never felt like we weren’t in control.”
YSU freshman Martin Ruiz had another strong performance, rushing 23 times for 141 yards and three TDs, including a 44-yarder on the Penguins’ first offensive play.
“First drive, first play and we score and we just had to keep it going after that,” said Ruiz, who had his second 100-yard game of the season. “I’m going to be asleep [on the bus ride home] after all them hits.”
The game was delayed twice by lightning, once briefly at halftime and once with three minutes left in the third quarter. The second delay lasted 75 minutes, with YSU leading 28-10. The Penguins picked up first downs on their first two plays after the delay and eventually extended their lead to 35-10 midway through the fourth quarter.
ISU (1-5, 0-1) cut the deficit to 11 with 1:57 left but YSU recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
Perish finished 30 of 56 for 392 yards and three TDs, but he was sacked four times. Bell carried seven times for just 17 yards.
Penguin QB Kurt Hess completed 14 of 23 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown, while S Donald D’Alesio had nine tackles and ripped the ball out of Logan’s hand for a fumble recovery in the second quarter. Those two players were the MVFC’s offensive and defensive players of the week after last week’s win over Southern Illinois.
YSU now heads home for two games tied atop the MVFC standings.
“It feels great because we control our own destiny,” Smith said. “We don’t have to depend on anybody now.”