Smash hit

High-flying Penguins soar with scores

By joe scalzo


With Ohio State and Notre Dame both enjoying an off week, the Indians and Pirates enduring too early offseasons, Youngstown embracing perfect weather and Youngstown State employing its best conference run in more than a decade, the Penguins entered Saturday’s game against Illinois State with a perfect opportunity to seize the city’s heart.

And boy, did they take advantage of it.

Racking up more than 500 yards through the first three quarters alone, YSU rode the arm (and, briefly, the legs) of senior quarterback Kurt Hess to roll past the Redbirds 59-21 in front of more than 16,500 fans at Stambaugh Stadium.

“Kurt was on point tonight,” said junior WR Jelani Berassa, whose 10-yard TD catch in the second quarter was his first since 2011. “Before the game started, I said, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I feel something in you today.’”

Countered Hess, “I told him the lights were playing with his head.”

Apparently not. The 59 points were the most the Penguins (6-1, 3-0 Missouri Valley) have ever scored in a conference game, besting the 56 they had against Western Illinois two years ago. And they did it in front of their largest crowd since drawing 19,277 fans for last year’s conference opener against UNI.

“We need to keep getting bigger and bigger,” YSU coach Eric Wolford said. “On third down, this place should be so loud the other team can’t communicate. That’s the way it is at other schools we play at.

“We play for Youngstown. For everyone in the community, not just the university and our families. We take a lot of pride in being from Youngstown.”

Hess completed 17 of 21 passes for a career-high 311 yards and four TDs — all to different receivers — and ran for a 16-yard touchdown as YSU scored on its first eight possessions to take a 52-14 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

The win avenged last year’s loss to Illinois State in which the Penguins ran out to a 28-7 second-quarter lead, only to get outscored 28-0 down the stretch.

YSU again took a 28-7 second-quarter lead Saturday, with ISU then cutting the deficit to 14 on a 73-yard pass play. But the Penguins scored the final 10 points of the first half to erase any doubt about the outcome.

“If we want to go out and prove we’re a different team than we were last year, the only way to do it is to get on that stage and play,” Wolford said. “That’s what this team did.

“We’re a humble team and we’re a hungry team, but we’ve got an edge to us. We’ve got to keep that edge.”

Martin Ruiz (85 yards), Jody Webb (76 yards) and Demond Hymes (65 yards) all scored rushing touchdowns and four different receivers caught TDs.

Safety Donald D’Alesio and cornerback Dale Peterman each had interceptions as YSU forced three ISU turnovers and improved to 20-1 when holding a team to 27 points or fewer under Wolford.

Blake Winkler threw for 221 yards and a TD for Illinois State (2-4, 1-2), which advanced to the FCS quarterfinals last season. Marshaun Coprich added 110 yards rushing and a TD, becoming the first opposing running back to top 100 yards against YSU since last year’s North Dakota State game in Week 5.

The Penguins (6-1, 3-0 Missouri Valley) are off to their best start in conference play since 2006, which also happens to be the last time they made the playoffs.

It’s still early, but this year’s team looks capable of ending that drought.

“At some point you’ve got to start to believe,” Wolford said. “This team believes.”

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