Stage fright

Penguins flustered before Big Ten audience

By Joe Scalzo

east lansing, Mich.

After watching Martin Ruiz score two touchdowns in Saturday’s 55-17 loss to Michigan State, Youngstown State coach Eric Wolford learned this about his freshman running back:

“He’s not scared,” Wolford said. “Martin Ruiz is not scared by the arena.”

As for the rest of the Penguins? Well, that’s still up for debate.

Two years after playing the Spartans tough well into the fourth quarter — and one year after stunning Pitt — the Penguins (2-1) bumbled the opening kickoff, fumbled away two possessions (both led to MSU scores), stumbled in big moments and crumbled against Michigan State’s offensive and defensive lines.

And it left Wolford scratching his head.

“We had some guys that were caught up in the stage today, some guys that were doing some uncharacteristic things,” Wolford said. “Getting caught up in the arena or the moment or the opportunity to play on the Big Ten [Network] or whatever. It was kind of surprising to me, really. I thought we’d handle the atmosphere much better.

“We didn’t expect to slop it around the field like that.”

The mistakes started in the game’s opening seconds when Andre Stubbs struggled to corral a squibbing kickoff, forcing him to dive on it at the YSU 5.

Quarterback Kurt Hess then tried to hit Michael Wheary deep on the first play, but Wheary dropped it near midfield after a swipe by MSU defensive back Trae Waynes. A wide-open Wheary dropped an easy pass on the next play, then Torrian Pace got stuffed on third down to force a punt.

“Starting there [at the 5] is almost like instant adversity,” Hess said. “We tried to take a shot, it didn’t really work out for us and it set the tone for the game.

“We’ve got to overcome that.”

A personal foul gave MSU the ball on YSU’s 24 and it took just five plays for the Spartans to make it 7-0. They extended it to 21-3 by the end of the first quarter to quash any thought of a YSU upset.

Michigan State’s offense had struggled in its first two games — the Spartans’ defense scored four of the team’s six touchdowns — but they overwhelmed a smaller, slower Penguins defense, rolling up 547 yards, including 284 on the ground.

Starting quarterback Connor Cook, who entered the game looking over his shoulder at true freshman Damion Terry, ended it relaxing on the sidelines after completing 15 of 22 passes for 202 yards and four TDs against a non-existent YSU pass rush.

“I think it was glaring that they controlled the line of scrimmage from the get-go,” Wolford said. “They were just glaringly faster than us today. That kind of really surprised me. They were just playing a lot faster than we were.”

One of the few bright spots was Ruiz, who was coming off his first 100-yard game in last week’s win over Morehead State. He led the Penguins in rushing (11 carries, 36 yards, 1 TD) and receiving (four catches, 57 yards, 1 TD), although he did lose a fumble.

“There’s not that many teams in the conference as good or as big as Michigan State,” Ruiz said. “I know I learned a lot from this game. I’m pretty sure the rest of the team did.”

While there are $650,000 positives YSU can take from Saturday’s game, the biggest one is this: No one outside of YSU’s locker room expected the Penguins to win.

As long as YSU plays better in its Missouri Valley games, this loss won’t matter.

“We’ve got good leaders on this team,” said Wolford, whose team plays Duquesne next week before opening up MVFC play at Southern Illinois. “They mentioned it after the game that we need to learn from this mistake. We’ll mourn for 24 hours and move on.

“These guys will come back on Monday ready to work.”

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