By Joe Scalzo
Picking the most painful loss of Eric Wolford’s first year is like choosing CBS’s laziest comedy or your worst Wal-Mart experience.
Still, for overall soul-crushitude, it’s hard to beat YSU’s second-to-last game in 2010, at Illinois State. The Penguins rallied from a 35-17 deficit to take a 39-35 lead with 27 seconds left and were poised to snap a five-game losing streak.
Then, as happened far too often to YSU that season, the Redbirds rallied in the final seconds with Matt Brown hitting Tyrone Walker for a game-winning, 40-yard rainbow with one second left.
“That was the day I tried to jump out of the plane,” Wolford said Tuesday. “Fortunately it hadn’t taken off yet.”
While YSU fans get excited about games against Northern Iowa or North Dakota State, the Penguins’ best rivalry since joining the Missouri Valley/Gateway has been with Illinois State.
The series, which began in 1979, is tied 11-11. Thirteen of those games have been decided by a touchdown or less, including all three under Wolford.
“We’ve had some wild games against them,” Redbirds coach Brock Spack said. “We had a wild one last year and had to come from behind to win. That kind of seems to be the story. The fourth quarter’s kind of wild in this game.”
Illinois State rallied from a 28-7 deficit to beat YSU, 35-28, in last year’s game, easily the biggest head-scratcher of last year’s O-for-October stretch. Unlike the other three October losses, YSU didn’t commit a turnover or have an obvious special teams blunder.
The Penguins just got outplayed.
“We still have a bad taste in our mouths from last year,” wide receiver Christian Bryan said. “We were up 28-7 and we fell apart and lost the game.”
This year’s YSU team has shown more resiliency than that one, rallying from a two-touchdown deficit to beat Southern Illinois, then overcoming 80 minutes worth of lightning delays against Indiana State to pick up the first back-to-back road wins of Wolford’s tenure.
YSU now plays two straight at home, starting with Saturday’s game against an Illinois State team that’s still struggling to find its identity after graduating five first-team all-conference players, including Brown, the MVFC offensive player of the year.
The Redbirds’ first choice to replace Brown, junior transfer Jared Barnett (Iowa State), started the first three games and threw five interceptions as ISU went 1-2. Barnett left the team on Tuesday after getting replaced by freshman Blake Winkler, who was ineffective in a 37-10 loss to Missouri State but played well in last week’s win over Western Illinois.
Winkler will get a big test Saturday at Stambaugh Stadium, which could have its best crowd since last year’s win over Northern Iowa.
“They’re a handful,” Spack said. “This is what we sign up for and we’ll see what we got for them.
“It’ll be fun.”
It usually is.
Bellamy takes leave
Wolford said senior running back Adaris Bellamy has taken a leave of absence. Bellamy ran for 203 yards and a touchdown in the opener against Dayton before injuring his ankle late in that game. He has not carried the ball since then and did not appear in the last two games.
“He had some things he needed to work on with his family,” Wolford said. “Until he feels comfortable getting those things squared away, we’re going to let him handle those things.”