By Joe Scalzo
If Youngstown State wanted to sneak up on Michigan State this afternoon — or catch the Spartans looking ahead to next week’s game with Notre Dame — they should have done two things different.
“We already knew about them, but they just put up [more than] 700 yards last week, so it’s hard to go unnoticed,” said MSU junior safety Kurtis Drummond, a Hubbard High graduate. “Being that we have coaches that have been in the Youngstown area and players from the area, they’re no surprise to us.”
After starting the season with two non-scholarship FCS schools, the Penguins (2-0) get their first, and toughest, test today when they play one of the nation’s top five defenses, coached by Ursuline High graduate Pat Narduzzi.
MSU (2-0) ranks third in the FBS in total defense at 179.5 yard per game and is first in yards per play (2.64). Its defense has forced six turnovers and has scored four of the Spartans’ six touchdowns.
“Defensively, we were in the top 10 in every category last year but we didn’t get a lot of turnovers,” said Narduzzi, whose father, Bill, coached YSU from 1975-85. “Now we’re starting to get some of them.
“Sometimes it’s luck and sometimes it’s talent, but we’ve got a lot of good football players making plays.”
YSU was competitive two years ago in its first trip to East Lansing, losing 28-6 to a Spartans team that has produced nine NFL draft picks in the past two years. Knocking off Pitt at Heinz Field last year created the expectation among YSU’s players — and its fans — that today’s game is about more than a $650,000 paycheck.
“Getting the win against Pitt last year gave us confidence; it let us know we could play with teams of that caliber,” senior defensive tackle D.J. Moss said. “Every week we go out on the field we’re looking to win. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing Valpo, Dayton, South Dakota State — we’re going to go out there each week and look to win and capitalize on our opportunity there.”
After a lackluster outing against Dayton, YSU gained a school-record 718 yards of offense in last week’s 67-13 win over Morehead State. Kurt Hess had one of the best games of his career (16 of 19, 282 yards, 3 TDs, no interceptions) and two freshman running backs each gained more than 100 yards.
While no one expects YSU to put up similar numbers, the Penguins have a chance if they can hold their own against Michigan State’s offensive and defensive lines.
“They got some big ol’ boys on the offense line and over the course of four quarters, can we match their physical play?” YSU coach Eric Wolford said. “Their front seven against our front, can we physically match them for 70-75 plays?
“That’s going to be the question.”
The other question is, can YSU take advantage of MSU’s shaky quarterback situation? The Spartans have played three so far and today’s expected starter, sophomore Connor Cook, hasn’t exactly looked like the second coming of Kirk Cousins.
If those struggles continue, and YSU can get a little luck, today’s game could get interesting.
“I don’t make any predictions,” said Wolford, “but we expect to play well.”