By Joe Scalzo
After three (mostly) easy wins over the college football equivalent of their younger brothers — and a bad loss to big brother Michigan State — maybe the one thing we know about Youngstown State right now is this: We don’t know anything.
“We won the games we were supposed to win,” senior defensive end Kyle Sirl said. “That’s what it ultimately comes down to.”
The Penguins (3-1) will find out a whole lot more today when they play Southern Illinois (2-2), a team picked to finish seventh in the Missouri Valley’s preseason poll but one that looks capable of making a playoff run.
The Salukis opened the season with a 42-34 loss to Illinois, nearly erasing a 22-point deficit before falling short at the Illini’s 3-yard line. They then lost in double overtime to Eastern Illinois, which is ranked eighth in the Sports Network poll.
“I think we learned a lot about ourselves as a football team,” Salukis coach Dale Lennon said. “We have been able to improve over the past four weeks. The non-conference schedule has allowed us to prepare and take care of some of our issues.”
YSU can’t necessarily say the same. The Penguins’ first four games were good for the bottom line (especially the $650,000 check from MSU) but today’s game is the first against an “equal” opponent. Michigan State is one of the Big Ten’s better programs, whereas the other three opponents were split between non-scholarship FCS schools (Dayton, Morehead State) and a partial-scholarship FCS school (Duquesne).
If YSU can win, the schedule sets up well over the next month with games against Indiana State, Illinois State, Western Illinois and South Dakota. None of those teams are expected to contend for the league title.
“Non-conference is all fine and dandy to get in and tune up some things, but conference is where you measure your team’s ability,” Sirl said. “Every team in this conference has the ability to win on any given Saturday.”
Southern Illinois has one of the better atmospheres in the MVFC, routinely drawing 10,000 fans or more. Tonight’s game is the annual “Black Out Cancer” game, with fans asked to wear black T-shirts and donate money to fight cancer. The 6 p.m. start gives those fans extra time to get, ahem, hydrated, so it should make for a loud crowd.
“It’s a night game, the lights will be on and the crowd will be revved up,” YSU coach Eric Wolford said. “I like playing in a lively environment.”