YSU tops Western Illinois to improve to 4-0 in Missouri Valley
By Joe Scalzo
The first quarter was played in the middle of a sneeze, the homecoming crowd looked more like a home-staying crowd and Youngstown State’s passing game was in such disarray that the Penguin coaches decided their best chance to win was to put the ball in the hands of a freshman running back from Tampa who was playing in the coldest game of his football career.
Martin Ruiz carried 21 times for a career-high 199 yards, including a huge third-down run to set up the game-clinching touchdown, and YSU used an imperfect performance to stay perfect in its conference, holding off Western Illinois, 24-14, on Saturday at Stambaugh Stadium.
“It was good for our football team to have a little bit of a roller-coaster game,” Penguins coach Eric Wolford said. “It’ll bode well for the future.”
Although YSU (7-1, 4-0 Missouri Valley) never trailed, the Penguins were in trouble late in the fourth quarter. Western Illinois had a chance to tie it at 17 with 6:35 left, but Nathan Knuffman’s 40-yard field goal attempt was wide left.
Three plays later, YSU faced a third-and-7 at its own 26 and opted to give the ball to Ruiz, who popped through the middle of WIU’s defense for a 57-yard gain.
“It started with the line,” Ruiz said. “[Guard] Fred [Herdman] had a big play on that. I just seen a big hole, I hit it and tried to get as far as I could.”
Added senior defensive end Kyle Sirl, “That play was absolutely huge.”
The Penguins rushed five straight times to set up a third-and-goal at the Leathernecks’ 5. Quarterback Kurt Hess, the reigning national offensive player of the week, rolled right to pass, then looked back left, where he lofted a pass to tight end Nate Adams, who made a diving catch directly in front of the official to make it 24-14 with 2:34 left.
“Yes, I caught it,” Adams said afterward. “I caught it looking right at the officials and as soon as he put his hands up, it was obviously a great moment.
“It’s a little bit of a delayed play and the line gave him time and Kurt put it in the right spot.”
Hess also had a 7-yard touchdown pass to Christian Bryan in an otherwise forgettable performance. YSU coach Eric Wolford said the Leathernecks (3-5, 1-3) played a “completely different coverage than they had shown previously” and the passing game never got in synch. Hess finished 7 of 18 for 47 yards and an interception, with no pass going for more than 15 yards.
“When it’s raining like this, there’s a lot of plays designed on the ground,” said Ruiz, who opened the scoring with a 60-yard TD midway through the first quarter. “Just give me the ball.
“It’s fun, running the ball in the rain. I did the best I could.”
YSU struggled to tackle Western Illinois junior running back, J.C. Baker, who ran 28 times for 148 yards. But the Penguins’ defense came up big when it had to, combining for eight tackles for loss (including 2.5 from Emmanuel Kromah) with an interception.
“I don’t feel like we escaped one,” said Sirl, who made a career-high 10 tackles, including two for loss. “We played a really good football team tonight. I said earlier in the week that they’re better than their record shows.”
The Penguins are 4-0 in the conference for just the third time in school history and the first time since 2005. They enter their open date having won 10 straight FCS games and seven straight conference games.
“We’re rolling,” Adams said. “I wouldn’t mind if we kept playing.”