The Youngstown State football team opens the 2011 season with a Friday Night contest at Michigan State. Kickoff at Spartan Stadium is set for 7:30 p.m. The game will be carried live on 570 WKBN and televised to most of the nation on the Big Ten Network.
This is the 71st season of football for the program that started in 1938. Second-year Head Coach Eric Wolford has brought in nearly 50 newcomers to help the Penguins bounce back from a 3-8 campaign in 2010.
Tonight's contest is the first-ever meeting on the gridiron between Michigan State and Youngstown State. It will also have the uniqueness of being a Friday night tilt. YSU has not played on a Friday since the day after Thanksgiving in the first round of the 1994 playoffs. That was a memorable event at Stambaugh Stadium as YSU scored 63 points in a win over Steve McNair's Alcorn State squad in front of a national-televison audience on ESPN.
The Spartans enter the contest following one of their best seasons in school history. Michigan State won 11 games last year and shared the Big Ten Conference title with Wisconsin and Ohio State. MSU will look to get out of the gate strong after its 2010 campaign ended with a disappointing 49-7 loss to Alabama on New Year's Day in the Capital One Bowl.
Michigan State Head Coach Mark Dantonio was a member of the Penguins' coaching staff from 1986-90. Those were the first five seasons under Head Coach Jim Tressel. YSU won Ohio Valley Conference titles in 1987 and 1989 and was a perfect 11-0 in 1990 only to lose in the first round of the FCS playoffs on a final-play field goal to Central Florida. That still remains as the only playoff home loss in school history.
YSU will be anxious to put a frustrating 2010 season in its rearview mirror. The Penguins led in every game last year and had fourth-quarter leads in seven, but they ended up with just three victories. All four of the late-game losses came with under three minutes left - and three of those losses were to the Missouri Valley Football Conference's playoff representatives while the other came in the final second.
YSU returns home on Sept. 10 when it plays host to Valparaiso. Like the game against the Spartans, it will be the first meeting in school history against the Crusaders, a member of the Pioneer Football League. Kickoff at Stambaugh Stadium is set for 4 p.m. The Guins have won 15 consecutive home openers.
• The Penguins set a school record by averaging 412.0 yards of total offense per game.
• QB Kurt Hess became the first freshman to pass for more than 2,000 yards in a season. It was only the 11th time a QB had thrown for more than 2,000 yards in school history. Hess threw for 2,117 yards, averaging 192.5 yards per game.
• Hess, the MVFC Freshman of the Year, completed all but one of the team's 180 completions while he attempted all but two of the 309 attempts.
• TB Jamaine Cook became the 14th running back to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season in school history. It was the 20th time a Penguin eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark.
• YSU had the lead at some point in every game during the season.
• The Penguins were 3-3 at home but went 0-5 on the road.
• YSU had three total offense efforts above 500 yards for the first time in school history and had 499 in one other contest.
• The Penguins set a school record for most first downs in a game with 33 at Illinois State and tied the mark for most points by scoring 63 versus Central Connecticut State.
• LB John Sasson led the team with 89 tackles. Sasson had 90 combined in his previous two seasons with the program.
• Coach Eric Wolford won his home debut when the Penguins beat Butler 31-7 and also won his MVFC initial appearance, knocking off nationally-ranked Southern Illinois 31-28.
• The Penguins played 13 freshmen.
Entering 2011 Campaign
• The Penguins return seven starters on offense but will be replacing four players who started every game last year - WR Dominique Barnes, OG Eric Rodemoyer, C Justin Rechichar and OT/OG Bobby Coates.
• On defense, YSU lost four every-game starters in CB Brandian Ross, DT Torrance Nicholson, DE Luke Matelan and LB David Rach.
• In the secondary, Donald D'Alesio is the only starter of that group to return this season. YSU had nine different players who started at some point in the secondary last year.
• The Penguins have 14 seniors on the roster - eight on defense (3 DL, 3 LB, 1 SS, 1 CB) five on offense (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 QB) and long snapper Nate Schkurko.
• Of the 14 seniors, TE David Rogers, LB John Sasson, WR Ely Ducatel, CB Josh Lee, SS Scott Sentner are in their fifth year with the program.
• YSU has an astonishing 49 players on the roster who were not with the program last year. Of that, nearly two thirds are on the defensive side of the ball.
MSU Scouting Report
Michigan State is coming off an 11-2 performance in 2010 while earning a share of the Big Ten Conference championship.
On offense, the Spartans are led by third-year starting quarterback Kurt Cousins. Cousins completed 226-of-338 passes for 2,825 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2010. Michigan State averaged 388.5 yards of total offense last year.
On defense, senior free safety Trenton Robinson is the top returning tackler. Robinson finished with 76 stops and four interceptions.
Robinson, Cousins and senior left guard Joel Foreman will represent the Spartans as team captains this season.
In the Openers
The Penguins had won 11 consecutive season openers before dropping their last four contests to BCS programs. YSU lost at Penn State last season after previously dropping games at Pittsburgh (2009) and Ohio State (2008 and 2007).
Despite dropping their last four openers, YSU is 39-29-2 all-time in season openers.
In season openers played on the road, YSU owns a 10-21 mark. The last time YSU won a season opener on the road was at Western Michigan in 1993.
Opener Highs and Lows
Most Points: 51 vs. Slippery Rock, 2006
Fewest Points: 0, 6 times (m.r. at Ohio State, 2008)
Most Points Allowed: 47 by Central Michigan, 1972
Fewest Points Allowed: 0, 9 times (m.r. Wofford, 1996)
Margin of Victory: 44 | 50-6 vs. Clarion, 1998
Margin of Defeat: 43 | 43-0 at Ohio State, 2008
The Penguins scored the first touchdown of the game when Kurt Hess connected with Dominique Barnes on an 80-yard touchdown pass. A big second half by Penn State proved to be the difference in a 44-14 win by the Nittany Lions.
YSU led 7-3 after the first quarter before PSU took a 16-7 halftime lead scoring 13 points in the second quarter.
The big blow came when PSU's Chaz Powell returned the second-half's opening kickoff 100 yards for a score. The Nittany Lions added another touchdown in the quarter and two more in the fourth before YSU found the end zone with 40 seconds left on a Hess to Ely Ducatel seven-yard pass.
Wolford in Second Year
Head Coach Eric Wolford enters his second season looking to build on last year's three-win campaign.
Historically, the second years of head coaches have gone either way.
Here is a look at the previous five coaches and how they fared their first two years: Coach Dwight Beede won four games in each of his first two seasons; Rey Dempsey improved from four to eight; Bill Narduzzi went from five to four, Jim Tressel went from two to eight and Jon Heacock went from eight to seven.
Hess Starts Career Strong
Sophomore quarterback Kurt Hess had a strong first season, starting all 11 games and being named the MVFC Freshman of the Year.
He threw for 2,117 yards completed 179-of-304 passes and had 12 scores. He averaged 192.5 yards per contest through the air.
Only two quarterbacks have thrown for more than 2,000 yards in consecutive seasons in school history. Mark Brungard in 1994 and 1995 and Trenton Lykes in 1986 and 1987 accomplished the feat in consecutive seasons.
It was also the second straight year that a Penguin QB went over the 2,000 yards passing. Brandon Summers threw for 2,329 in 2009.
During his redshirt freshman campaign, Hess threw for more than 200 yards five times - all in consecutive games. He had a high of 263 at South Dakota State.
Now We're Cooking
Junior tailback Jamaine Cook rushed for 1,273 yards on 241 carries and scored 11 touchdowns last season taking over as the full-time starter. As a freshman in 2009 he had 111 yards on 20 carries. After two seasons, Cook has 1,387 career yards on 261 attempts.
He became the 14th different running back in school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season. Overall it was the 20th time a Penguin reached the 1,000-yard plateau.
Cook rushed for more than 100 yards on six occasions, highlighted by a career-best 43-carry, 213-yard effort at Illinois State. He scored two rushing touchdowns against the Redbirds and caught a third.
His 43 carries tied with Monquantae Gibson (2006) for the second most in a game in school history. His 213 yards is the 13th-best single-game rushing yardage performance.
A second-team all-league pick, he was 13th nationally and second in the MVFC averaging 116 yards a contest.
Friday Night Lights
The contest at Michigan State is the Penguins' first Friday game since November 1994.
For the Guins, it will be their first Friday game since Nov. 25, 1994 when they played host to Alcorn State in the first round of the playoffs at Stambaugh Stadium. That contest was televised nationally on ESPN, the day following Thanksgiving. Alcorn State's quarterback at the time was Steve McNair.
The last time the Penguins played a season-opening game on the road at night was at Western Michigan in 1993.
Ground Attack Came Back
The Penguins were 10th in the FCS in rushing offense last year averaging 215 yards per game. YSU was second in the conference just behind UNI's 216.58 yards per game.
It was the first time that YSU averaged more than 200 yards per game since 2006 (223.7 a contest in 14 games). It was the third time since 1998 the Guins averaged more than 200 yards on the ground.
In 2010, YSU had 30 rushing touchdowns. In the previous two years combined the Guins had 25 rushing scores.
Michigan State Head Coach Mark Dantonio was defensive secondary coach and defensive coordinator at Youngstown State (1986-90). MSU Defensive Coordinator Pat Narduzzi, is the son of former YSU Head Coach Bill Narduzzi. Pat played one season for the Penguins in 1986 before transferring. Linebackers/Special Teams coach Mike Tressel is the nephew of former Penguin Head Coach Jim Tressel.
Offense Piled Up Yards
For the first time in school history, the Guins had three 500-yard performances in the same season last year.
YSU posted a season-best 532 yards at Illinois State on Nov. 6, had 512 yards against Central Connecticut State on Sept. 18 and had 506 yards at Western Illinois on Oct. 16. The Guins also had 499 versus North Dakota State.
For the year, YSU averaged a school-record 410 yards, eclipsing the previous high of 407.1 set in 2001.
Also, the 32 points per game ranks third behind 33.5 in 2001 and 1978.
Preaching Red-Zone Success
Coach Eric Wolford continues to stress Red Zone play in his second campaign. Last year, the Guins had one of the most successful red-zone conversion rates in school history.
YSU was 41-of-45 entering the red zone for a conversion percentage of 91.1 percent. That ranked third in the country behind Furman and Indiana State. The Guins could have been first, but, ironically, the Sycamores stopped them twice inside the red zone in the final six minutes of the final quarter of the last game in 2010.
The two other times YSU did not score in the red zone were drives that ended inside the one-yard line (WIU and NDSU).
Defense Looks to Rebound
The Penguins admit they had a rough year defensively last season. Now, they are looking for a rebound campaign in 2011.
In 2010, the Guins surrendered 41 offensive touchdowns, including 26 through the air. The passing scores allowed set a school record by five over the 21 given up in 15 games in 1999.
The seven interceptions by the unit were the fewest since 2004 (seven also), but the previous time YSU had a total lower than that was six in 1971.
The 254.2 yards passing per game average was also a school mark by 40 yards over the previous total.
New Faces in all Places
The Penguins have 48 players on the full roster who were not with the program last year.
That does not include a group of eight individuals who redshirted and three others who were part of the team but did not letter - including one who did not see action at all.
So of the 94 players on the roster, 57 did not see the field for the Penguins last year.
YSU returns 37 letterwinners (17 on offense, 18 on defense and two on special teams) from the 2010 team, but three have already been designated to redshirt this year because of injuries.
The Guins lost 30 letterwinners from the 2010 team.
Go-To Receiver Needed
Last year, QB Kurt Hess found Dominique Barnes as his go-to receiver. Now, the Penguins will be looking for a new dependable target.
The top returning wide receiver from last season is senior Ely Ducatel. He caught 27 passes for 336 yards and two scores last year.
YSU returns wide receiver Jelani Berassa who missed last season after suffering a knee injury in fall camp. Berassa caught four passes as a true freshman in 2009. Juilian Harrell caught 12 passes and Kevin Watts had 11 receptions last year.
No Seniors on the Line
The Penguins have no seniors on the offensive line this year. The last time no seniors started on the line was in 1998.
Since at least 1978, this is the first time no seniors at all were part of the offensive line.
Sasson Racks up the Hits
Senior linebacker John Sasson posted a team-high 89 tackles in 2010. Sasson, who has started 18 games in his career, has 179 tackles in his career.
Last year, Sasson almost equalled his career total after his freshman and sophomore seasons. As a freshman in 2008 he had 40 total tackles, and, as a sophomore, he was credited with 50.
In 2010, Sasson had career-high 10-tackle performances at South Dakota State (Oct. 23) and against Butler (Sept. 11).
Michiganders Head Home
The Michigan State game will be a homecoming for four Penguins. Three players are from Detroit - Andrew Johnson (Southeastern H.S.), Josh Fenderson (Henry Ford) and Aronde Stanton (Martin Luther King). The other DE Nick DeKraker is from Marne.
Obinna Wreaks Havoc
Senior defensive end Obinna Ekweremuba will look to have a bigger impact in his second season of seeing playing time for the Penguins.
Ekweremuba made his first career start versus North Dakota State last year and remained in the starting lineup the rest of the season. He had seen 10 snaps of action in the first five games before starting the last six.
He had one of his best performances against conference champion UNI. Ekweremuba had eight tackles, including seven solos. He had 2.5 TFLs, with a sack for a seven-yard loss. The sack was the first of his career.
He finished the year with 24 total stops, including 17 solo tackles.
Top of the Liste
Sophomore punter Nick Liste has had an outstanding fall camp and has picked up where he left off after a solid 2010 season.
Of his 41 kicks last season, 25 went at least 40 yards while 15 placed the opposition inside its own 20-yard line. He also had six 50-yard plus boots in 2010, including a career-long 69-yarder at Missouri State.
Liste averaged 39 yards or more in nine of 11 games in a Penguin, and for the season, was at a 41.4 per kick clip. That average was the third best in school history.
Brown Looks to Deliver
Junior placekicker David Brown assumes the duties from two-year starter Stephen Blose. Last year, Blose had one of the best overall seasons in school history. He made 38-of-40 PAT tries and 12-of-14 field goals for the season.
Brown, a junior college transfer, joined the program in January after two seasons at Ventura CC. As a sophomore in 2010 he made 34 extra points and eight field goals.
Only Three with INTs
Only three Penguins on the current roster have an interception. Those players are LB Deonta Tate, SS Scott Sentner and TE Will Shaw. Shaw played safety last year and returned an interception 87 yards versus UNI. Tate's pick came in the third quarter of the Guins' win over Southern Illinois.
Sentner's INT came on the final game of the 2009 campaign in the come-from-behind win at North Dakota State.
Fourth Quarter Nightmares
When YSU came to camp on Aug. 6, the focus was to have more successful finishes because in 2010, the last seven games were tough to swallow.
The Penguins, who led at some point in all 11 games last year, held fourth-quarter leads in seven of those contests.
While YSU went on to win three of those, the other four were gut-wrenching defeats.
All four came in the final 2:15 of the game with three occurring in the last minute. The four losses were by a total of 12 points.
YSU led North Dakota State 29-28 before losing 34-29; the Guins were in front of Western Illinois 38-34 before falling 40-38; they led UNI 30-27 before losing 34-30 and YSU rallied from down 18 points to lead Illinois State 39-35, but the Redbirds scored with 0.7 seconds left for the 41-39 victory.
Only twice (Butler and Indiana State) did the Penguins hold an opponent scoreless in the fourth quarter last year.
Lighting Up the Scoreboard
YSU scored at least 25 points in eight games last season, but it allowed 24 or more in nine contests. The Penguins averaged 31.3 points per game last year.
Making the Trip Up North
While the Penguins are making their first appearance at Spartan Stadium, they have been to Michigan plenty of times before.
YSU's last trip was on Sept. 11, 1999 when it lost 46-28 at Western Michigan. In games played in the state of Michigan, YSU is 10-12. The Penguins' last win came at Western in 1993 (17-13).
Eight is Enough
The last three times the Penguins dropped eight games in one campaign, they rebounded strong the next year.
YSU enters the 2011 campaign following a hard-luck 3-8 season last year. Most recently, the Guins lost eight times in 1995 and rebounded to win eight in 1996.
In 1986 (Coach Jim Tressel's first season), YSU suffered nine defeats but regrouped to win eight games and reach the postseason in 1987. In 1980, YSU was 2-8-1 and rebounded with a 7-4 mark the following year.
The only time YSU did not win at least seven games in the immediate year following an eight or nine-loss season was following the lone winless campaign in school history (0-9 in 1970). The Guins won twice in 1971.
WATTS New at YSU
Visitors to Youngstown for next week's home opener will see plenty of changes.
Most visually will be the WATTS, the Watson and Tressel Training Site, an indoor practice facility east of the Stadium. The project was ongoing during last year's football campaign and should be totally completed in the near future. The building is open for football and sports team practices.
YSU also had a new turf surface installed over the summer. The Sports Construction Group of Brecksville, Ohio, installed Shaw Sportexe's PowerBlade HP+ in Stambaugh Stadium for use by the football and soccer programs.
And the uniforms will undergo a minor tweak. The Penguins will wear black pants at home once again. YSU wore white pants both home and away in 2010 in its first year with Under Armour. Now, the traditional black pants make a return with the red uniform tops.
Forcing Four Turnovers
The Penguins have won 17 straight games when forcing at least four turnovers in a contest, including a win over Southern Illinois last season. The last loss was at UNI in 2001 when YSU had five giveaways to the Panthers' four. The Guins are 18-1 when forcing at least four turnovers since 2001.
Guins Were High in Rankings
The Penguins ranked in the top 20 in numerous national FCS rankings last season.
YSU was third in red-zone offense efficiency (91 percent), fourth in the nation in punt return average (16.6 per return), fourth in third-down conversion percentage (47.80 percent), eighth in fewest tackles for losses allowed (4.27), eighth in first downs (22.36), 10th in rushing offense (215.0), 16th in total offense (412.00) and 19th in scoring offense (31.27).
Single Digits in Fumbles
The Guins lost nine fumbles last season to mark the seventh straight season they have lost single digits in fumbles.
In 2009, YSU lost just three fumbles. In 2008, YSU lost nine fumbles in 12 games. YSU had nine fumbles lost in 2007, five in 2006, eight in 2005 and eight in 2004. Prior to the current seven-year streak, the Guins had committed single digits in fumbles lost in consecutive years just twice in school history (1986-87 and 1958-59).
Ring My Bellamy
Sophomore tailback Adaris Bellamy tied a school freshman mark by scoring 11 touchdowns in 2010. Bellamy tied the school record that was set by Adrian Brown in 1996.
Bellamy scored a career-high three touchdowns in the contest at Western Illinois. The last freshman to do that was Brown in 1996. Brown actually did it twice that year and tied a school record with four scores against Clarion.
Bellamy ran for a season-high 156 yards against North Dakota State, which was the fifth-best total by a freshman in school history.
YSU has three players from South Carolina on this year's team. It is the first time in school history the Guins have players from the Palmetto State on the roster. CB Brandon Thomas, WR Andrew Williams and WR Kintrell Disher have joined the program this fall. Their hometowns are all within 15 minutes of one another.
And Your Captains Are:
The Penguins announced their 2011 captains on Saturday, Aug. 27. Those selected were sophomore quarterback Kurt Hess, junior tailback Jamaine Cook, senior linebacker John Sasson and senior defensive tackle Andrew Johnson. Hess, who started every game at quarterback last year, is believed to be the first sophomore to be named a team captain in school history.
Hess and Sasson started every game last year while Cook started 10 times and Johnson eight.
Building a Turnaround
Coach Eric Wolford is working to turn the Penguins' fortunes around quickly.
YSU has 15 junior-college transfers, eight Division I transfers and three lower-division transfers on the current roster.
The FBS transfers are QB Adam Charles (Akron), CB Devonta' Davis (Miami, Fla.), WR Juilian Harrell (Miami, Ohio), DT Andrew Johnson (Bowling Green), OT Andrew Radakovich (Penn State), Anthony Stryffeler (Ball State) and LB Travis Williams (Miami, Fla.).
Davis, Johnson, Williams and Radakovich are slated to start against the Spartans.
Fresh Faces in 2010 Too
Coach Wolford gave his youngsters plenty of opportunities in 2010 as well. Overall, a total of 13 freshman saw the field last year. Of those, five made an appearance in the starting lineup.
Of the nine that are true sophomores in 2011, five on offense and four on defense. Those who saw action on offense were Adaris Bellamy, Jordan Thompson, Andrew Sinko, Chris Elkins and Kevin Watts. On defense, Ali Cheaib, Donald D'Alesio, Josh Garner and Thomas Sprague saw playing time.
This year, Jamarious Boatwright and Zach Larson will redshirt because of injuries while two are no longer with the program.
Against the Big Boys
This is the Penguins' fifth meeting with a Big Ten program but just the third school they have played. YSU played at Penn State in 2006 and 2010 while it made the in-state trip to Ohio State in 2007 and 2008.
Since 2005, the Penguins have made an annual trek to a BCS school's stadium. YSU played at Pittsburgh in 2005 and 2009. The Guins will visit the Panthers again in 2012.
YSU will play its first home game of the season when it plays host to Valparaiso on Saturday, Sept. 11. It is the first meeting between the two programs. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m.
The Penguins have won 15 straight home openers dating back to a loss to Stephen F. Austin in 1995.
YSU and Valpo are both members of the Horizon League for all sports but football.