YSU looks to improve offensive production
By ED PUSKAS
Youngstown State football coach Bo Pelini was surprised to learn that North Dakota State hasn’t exactly owned the first quarter this season.
The Bison (7-1, 4-1 Missouri Valley Football Conference) have produced just nine first quarter points in their eight games.
“I wasn’t aware of that,” Pelini said Tuesday during his weekly news conference. “I know this — if you don’t execute or play the right way, they’re going to score more than nine points. ... I hope they score no points.”
The way YSU’s offense has been going, the Penguins might just need that kind of a defensive performance. The Penguins (6-2, 4-1) have averaged just 17.4 points against MVFC opponents after scoring at twice that rate against non-conference foes Duquesne, West Virginia and Robert Morris.
YSU has scored more than 20 points against only one MVFC rival this season. That happened in a 30-20 victory over South Dakota in which the Penguins could have had that many points by halftime.
Injuries and inconsistency at quarterback are at least partly to blame for the failure to score consistently. YSU has used all four of the quarterbacks on its roster to start the season. Ricky Davis won the job in the preseason, but has missed two games (Robert Morris and Indiana State) with injuries. Backup Trent Hosick (collarbone) is out for the season. Nathan Mays, who was No. 3 or 4 on the depth chart when the season began, is now the top backup to a familiar name, Hunter Wells.
The latest injury to Davis thrust Wells back into the Penguins’ plans. The Navarre native started seven games as a freshman in 2014 under then-coach Eric Wolford and all 11 games last season.
Wells did not get on the field this season until last week in a 13-10 win over Indiana State. He went 13 of 26 for 101 yards and threw two early interceptions. The Penguins trailed most of the way, but took a fourth-quarter lead on Darien Townsend’s 79-yard punt return for a touchdown and held on for a victory.
YSU’s struggling offense must get well quickly, with NDSU — the five-time defending FCS champion — awaiting the Penguins on Saturday at the FargoDome.
Pelini said one of Wells’ interceptions against Indiana State came on an under-thrown ball the quarterback would likely want to have back. The coach absolved Wells on the other turnover.
“He under-threw the one ball and that happens to anyone who has ever played the position,” Pelini said. “The other throw really wasn’t his fault. ... The guy who intercepted that ball probably shouldn’t have been in that spot if we had run the route right on the other side.”
But there were bright spots — especially the Penguins’ ground game. Running back Martin Ruiz ran for 151 yards on 22 carries and YSU averaged 5.1 yards per carry. As Pelini mentioned, YSU moved the ball almost at will until reaching the red zone.
“We just have to work on some things and finish what we start when we step on the field,” said Ruiz, a senior with 17 career 100-yard games for the Penguins.
As YSU’s offense has increasingly struggled to finish drives with points, Pelini and offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery have turned to Ruiz, who has carried 26 times for 301 yards the last three games.
Ruiz appreciates the heavier workload after getting just 71 attempts in the Penguins’ first five games.
“After the game, I feel a little beat up, of course, but right now I’m fine with being the workhorse,” he said.