By Joe Scalzo
The last time Western Illinois came to Stambaugh Stadium, Kurt Hess threw a 70-yard touchdown on the game’s first play and then-coach Mark Hendrickson praised his team afterward for “forcing the ball to be punted in the second half.”
The Penguins took a 49-0 lead midway through the third quarter and eventually won 56-14. The Leathernecks’ school paper called it the “Youngstown Massacre.”
“We caught them at the right time,” YSU coach Eric Wolford said this week. “That score was a little bit deceiving.”
Western Illinois has lost seven of its last eight games to YSU, with the lone win coming in the closing seconds of the 2010 game. That Leatherneck team, led by quarterback Matt Barr, advanced to the second round of the playoffs, losing to Appalachian State.
From there, the bottom dropped out. WIU lost its last six games in 2011 and finished 2-9, then went 3-8 last season, again losing its last six games. Hendrickson was fired two days after the season ended.
New coach Bob Nielson, who came over from Minnesota-Duluth, will need time to build the program, but the Leathernecks have been slightly more competitive this season. They trailed Minnesota by just a field goal entering the fourth quarter of a Week 3 game, and beat an improved South Dakota team two weeks later.
Still, Wolford was clearly straining to sell this week’s matchup in Tuesday’s press conference, praising the Leathernecks for holding South Dakota State to just 109 yards rushing (with 80 of those coming on one play) in last week’s game. Problem was, WIU gave up three touchdown passes and promising freshman QB Trenton Norvell completed just 9 of 23 passes for 118 yards, no TDs and four interceptions.
Oh, and WIU lost 38-14.
“If they didn’t have four interceptions, who knows what the score would have been?” said Wolford, which is a little like saying, “If the Browns had Aaron Rodgers instead of Brandon Weeden, who knows what their record would be?”
YSU (6-1, 3-0) is off to its first 3-0 conference start since 2006, which is also the last time it made the playoffs. The Penguins have done a good job keeping their focus through the weakest part of their schedule, which started two weeks ago in Indiana State and continues through the South Dakota game in two weeks.
“I think we don’t really get into a mindset of, you know, we can relax and not watch as much film because I think we realize the amount of film and our focus in practice is what is giving us these results on Saturday,” senior defensive end Kyle Sirl said. “I know everybody in the locker room just wants to go out and play well and win. We have an overall team focus that I really don’t think I’ve experienced here in my five years.”
If continues, look for today’s homecoming to be a happy one.