Playoff Hopes On Line As Penguins Take On Jackrabbits

Andre Stubbs
Andre Stubbs

    The 15th-ranked Youngstown State football team plays its regular-season finale on Saturday against No. 16 South Dakota State. Kickoff at Stambaugh Stadium is set for 2 p.m. The game is available on WKBN 570 AM, iHeartRadio, ESPN3.com and MyYTV.
    YSU (8-3 overall and 5-2 in the MVFC) will be looking to advance to the postseason for the first time since 2006. With a win over the Jackrabbits, the Penguins should be an at-large selection for the 24-team FCS playoffs. It would also mark the first nine-win regular-season campaign since 2006, the last time the program advanced to the postseason.
    YSU is coming of a gallant effort in a 35-17 loss to top-ranked North Dakota State last Saturday at Stambaugh Stadium. The Penguins had to play three quarterbacks in the contest because of injuries. Veteran Kurt Hess (ankle) left the game with YSU trailing 14-7 in the second quarter. Backup Dante Nania (shoulder) pulled the Guins within 14-10, but was injured on a roughing-the-passer play just before halftime. Third-stringer Tanner Garry helped the Penguins pull within 28-17, and that was the score in the fourth quarter before the Bison added its final touchdown of the contest.
    South Dakota State (7-4 and 4-3) has won three straight games after dropping four of five at one stretch during the year. Last week, the Jackrabbits beat in-state rival South Dakota 27-12. Leading 20-12 in the fourth quarter, SDSU sealed the win when Winston Wright returned an interception 80 yards for a touchdown with 2:36 in front of a sold-out DakotaDome. The Jackrabbits feature standout running back Zach Zenner. Zenner has 271 rushes for 1,509 yards and 18 touchdowns this year. He is averaging 137 yards per contest.
    The MVFC has sent two teams to the postseason in each of the past 18 seasons. A win on Saturday gives the Guins an outright second-place finish behind North Dakota State and a school-record tying six league wins. The Valley advanced three teams to the playoffs last year, and NDSU has won back-to-back FCS titles. Teams from the league own wins over two BCS schools, the Southland Conference champion, the Northeast Conference co-champ and the Pioneer Football League co-champ.

NDSU Notes
• The Penguins ended up playing three quarterbacks in the contest. All three had at least nine attempts in the game.
• QB Kurt Hess played three series, QB Dante Nania played four and QB Tanner Garry played five.
• In the third quarter, Garry threw the first touchdown pass of his career (24 yards).
• Despite using three different quarterbacks, the Guins did not allow a sack to NDSU. It was only the second time under Coach Wolford that YSU lost when not allowing a sack.
• Hess made his 44th straight start but did not play in the second and fourth quarters and saw just three plays in the third.
• Senior CB Dale Peterman had the third interception of his career and picked off a pass for the second straight game.
• Nania and Garry combined for eight rushing attempts and totalled 38 yards.
• Punter Nick Liste had a strong game. Liste averaged 44.8 yards per kick and had three punts inside the 20-yard line. He also had two touchbacks on three kickoffs.
• YSU was 3-of-4 on fourth-down conversions.
• After being perfect in the red-zone in league play, the Guins were stopped late in the fourth quarter. YSU was 2-of-2 in the game before being stopped at the two-yard line.
• The Bison snapped the Penguins' seven-game home winning streak dating back to last November.
• Freshman TB Martin Ruiz went over 1,000 yards for his career and the season in the contest. Ruiz had 74 yards on 16 carries against NDSU.
• Redshirt freshman FS Jameel Smith had a career-best 10 tackles.

NDSU Recap
    North Dakota State outscored the Penguins 21-7 in the second half, and YSU played three quarterbacks in a 35-17 defeat last Saturday at Stambaugh Stadium.
    The Guins came out strong marching 80 yards in 10 plays to take a 7-0 when Kurt Hess threw a six-yard touchdown pass to Andre Stubbs.
    NDSU answered with touchdowns on each of its next two possessions before backup quarterback Dante Nania led the Guins on a 10-play 87-yard drive that resulted in a Joey Cejudo 24-yard field goal as the first half expired.
    The Bison scored the next two touchdowns on Brock Jensen to Kevin Vaadland passes in the third quarter to go in front 28-10.
    YSU pulled within 28-17 on a 24-yard touchdown pass from Tanner Garry to Nate Adams, but a Jensen one-yard run put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter.

Last Meeting vs. SDSU
    Youngstown State scored the final 21 points of the game and made things interesting late before falling 41-28 to South Dakota State last year at Coughlin-Alumni Stadium.
    After falling behind, the Penguins tied the game at seven in the first quarter on a 15-yard run by Kurt Hess.
    In the second quarter, SDSU scored 28 points to seize control of the contest.
    SDSU took a 14-7 lead on a 50-yard touchdown pass from Austin Sumner to Tyrel Kool at the 11:51 mark. The Jackrabbits proceeded to score two touchdowns in 1:39 on drives that totalled 27 yards. The first score was set up by a bad snap on a punt that gave SDSU the ball at the YSU 12. The second came following an interception that was returned to the Penguins' 15-yard line. Just before halftime, the Jackrabbits extended the lead to 35-7 on a Sumner touchdown toss.
    SDSU scored on its first play of the second half before the Penguins scored the final three touchdowns - two Hess passes and a defensive score.

Series History vs. SDSU
    The Penguins are looking to knock off the Jackrabbits for the first time since 2007. South Dakota State has won each of the four MVFC contests since it joined the league in 2008.
    SDSU has won nine of the 14 meetings with the Penguins. The series was tied at five through the first 10 contests before the Jackrabbits have gone on a recent winning streak.
    YSU has scored 28 points in each of the past two games but allowed 41 last season and 35 in 2011.
    This is the first November meeting in the series since a 1979 tilt in the Division II playoffs at Austintown Fitch Stadium. YSU won that contest 50-7.
    
MVFC Playoff Tidbits
    The Missouri Valley Football Conference has had two teams reach the postseason in 18 straight years. Four times in that span the league has placed more than two teams in the playoffs.
    Last year the conference was one of four to have three teams reach the postseason. The other previous years that the MVFC had more than two squads reach the postseason in that span was 2010, 2006 and 2003.
    In 2013 the field will feature 13 at-large selections for the first time ever.
    Notably, just five times has a league school won eight games and not been selected for the playoffs. YSU has suffered that fate twice. However, this year the Guins have eight victories against FCS foes. In 2005, YSU had seven and in 2001 the Penguins had just six victories over FCS schools.

FCS Playoff Update
    Entering the final Saturday, North Dakota State (MVFC), Eastern Illinois (OVC), Eastern Washington (Big Sky), Southeastern Louisiana (Southland), Sacred Heart (NEC) and Maine (CAA) have clinched berths as automatic conference champions. There are a total of 11 automatic bids and 13 at-large bids.
    Only 17 four-loss teams have made the FCS playoffs as at-large selections since 1986. Entering Saturday's action there are 21 playoff-eligible teams with three or four losses.

Exceeding Preseason Pick
    The Penguins were picked to finish fifth in the MVFC's preseason poll. A win on Saturday will leave them in sole possession of second place while a loss will leave them in a tie. North Dakota State was the unanimous No. 1 pick and clinched the title by beating YSU last Saturday. South Dakota State was picked second in the preseason poll. The last time the Guins placed as high as second in conference play was in 2006 when they won the league.

Eight-Win Seasons
    The Penguins have won eight games or more for the 18th time in school history.
    The eight wins this season are the most since 11 in the playoff campaign of 2006.
    Nine seems to be a magic number when it comes to the postseason, adding extra importance to Saturday's game.
    Eight regular-season wins helped the Guins advance to the playoffs in 1974, 1987 and 1989. Since 1996, the Guins have won exactly eight regular-season games three times and just missed the postseason in all three years.

Winning Increases
    For the third straight year the Guins have won more games than the previous season. After three wins in 2010, the Penguins won six in 2011. Last year, the Guins won seven contests for an improvement over the 2011 season. This year the Guins stand at eight wins with one regular-season game left.

Crunch-Time Contests
    This season, the Penguins have played five games that have basically been decided by fourth-quarter plays. YSU has won four times.
    In the opener, the Penguins hung on for 28-10 win over Dayton after starting the quarter with a 21-10 lead and UD inside the YSU five. At Southern Illinois, the Guins trailed 27-13 before rallying for a 28-27 win. Against Western Illinois, YSU was tied at 14 before scoring the final 10 points in the 24-14 win. At South Dakota, YSU rallied to lead 31-27, trailed 34-31, then won 38-34. At UNI, the Penguins led 14-6, went on top 20-19, only to lose 22-20.

Senior Day for 16
    The Penguins' seniors will be playing their final regular-season game at Stambaugh Stadium this Saturday. This year's group includes 16 players - Jelani Berassa, Ali Cheaib, Kevin Watts, Kurt Hess, Adaris Bellamy, Dom Rich, Dale Peterman, Torrian Pace, Kyle Sirl, Fred Herdman, Chris Elkins, Kyle Bryant, Andrew Sinko, Nick Liste, Carson Sharbaugh and D.J. Moss.

Non-Conference Update
    Three of the four non-conference opponents the Penguins have played have won at least six games. Michigan State has turned out to be a very strong team and is 9-1 and ranked 13th in the BCS. Dayton posted a 7-4 mark after concluding its season last week. Duquesne is 6-4 and shared the Northeast Conference title with Sacred Heart but lost the head-to-head tiebreaker. Morehead State is 3-8 with one game remaining.

Home-Field Advantage
    The Penguins have been doing a great job of making the "Ice Castle" a fortress once again. This season the Guins are 5-1 at home and, combined with last year's 5-1 mark, they have won 10 of their last 12 at Stambaugh Stadium.

Quarterbacks See Action
    Because of injuries the Penguins ended up playing three quarterbacks in the defeat to North Dakota State.
    Senior QB Kurt Hess started the game and played the first quarter and one series in the third. Dante Nania played the second quarter and first series of the third quarter before leaving with a shoulder injury. Tanner Garry played the remainder of the game after Hess departed in the third quarter.
    As a group, the three didn't perform too badly. They combined to complete 12-of-28 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns while rushing eight times for 38 yards.
    None of the three were sacked in the contest and each led YSU on a scoring drive.

Ruiz Over 1,000 Yards
    Freshman TB Martin Ruiz eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the season in the contest against North Dakota State. Against the Bison, he rushed for 74 yards on 16 carries.
    For the season he has 1,068 yards on 180 attempts and has scored 14 touchdowns.
    It marks the fourth straight year the Guins have had a 1,000-yard rusher. Jamaine Cook went over 1,000 in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
    He is just the fourth MVFC freshman to rush for more than 1,000 yards in his first year and first since 1993.

Senior Day Success
    The Penguins have won seven of their last nine home finales to send their seniors off on a positive note. Since 2001, YSU is 9-3 in home finales, losing to Missouri State in 2011, Indiana State in 2010 and Western Kentucky in 2003. The Guins had an impressive home finale last year beating Indiana State, 27-6.

Six with Two-Plus TDs
    The Penguins have six players who have caught at least two touchdowns.
    Leading the way is sophomore Andre Stubbs, who has caught five touchdown passes. Nate Adams is second on the team with three while Marcel Caver is third with three. Christian Bryan, Andrew Williams and Carson Sharbaugh each have a pair.
    Stubbs and Adams both had touchdown grabs against NDSU. Stubbs has caught a TD pass in each of the last two games.
    The last time the Guins had six players with two-or-more receiving touchdowns in the same year was 1990 (in 12 games). Last year, YSU had four players catch two-or-more with Will Shaw leading the way with five.

Red Zone Means Go
    The Penguins have scored on 28 of their last 29 possessions in the red zone. YSU had scored on 28 consecutive trips before being thwarted in the fourth quarter vs. North Dakota Sate last Saturday.
    The Guins are second in the FCS in red-zone percentage 93.3 percent on the campaign (42-of-45). Coastal Carolina took over the top spot following last week converting at 94 percent clip (63-of-67). YSU has 37 touchdowns and five field goals in the red zone this season.
    In Missouri Valley Football Conference play, YSU is 24-of-25 in such situations. The Guins have 21 touchdowns and three field goals. YSU has mixed it up scoring nine rushing touchdowns and 12 passing.
    The two other times YSU failed to score in the red zone was in the second quarter vs. Duquesne (turn over on downs) and in the fourth quarter against Morehead State (took a knee to end the game after reaching the 16).

20-Plus TDs Through the Air
    The Penguins have thrown 22 touchdown passes this season, which ties for the second most in a season in school history. Kurt Hess has thrown 21 touchdown passes this year while Tanner Garry had one last Saturday against North Dakota State.
    It marks just the fifth time in school history the Guins have had 20-or-more TD passes via the air in a campaign. The others are 2011 (27), 1994 (22), 1999 (21) and 1979 (21). Hess was the starting QB for YSU in 2011 and threw for 26 scores.
    YSU also has 30 touchdowns rushing, the most for the program since 2010 (also 30).

Bryan Eclipses 100
    Junior WR Christian Bryan has 101 career receptions in 33 career games played.
    Bryan became just the 14th player in school history to eclipse the 100-reception mark in a career.
    Dave DelSignore (1966-69) ranks 10th in school history with 102 grabs, and Bryan sits one behind him.
    Bryan is tied for 11th in school history for career touchdown receptions with his 11 TDs. He is one of 13 players in YSU history with 11-or-more TD grabs in a career.

Yardage Balance
    Through 11 games, the Penguins have thrown for 2,319 yards and rushed for 2,274 yards.  YSU has run the ball 424 times and thrown 277 passes in those contests. The Guins are averaging 38.5 rushing attempts per game and 25.2 passes a contest.

Ruiz Ranks Highly
    Freshman TB Martin Ruiz leads all FCS freshmen in rushing yards per game at 97.1 a contest. Bucknell's B.J. Williams is second at 91.9 yards per contest.
    Ruiz's 14 touchdowns are the most by a freshman in the nation, ahead of Howard's Anthony Philaw who has 11.
    Ruiz ranks 23rd in the FCS in points scored per game with 8.3 (90 points in 11 games).

>400 Yards/27 Points
    The Penguins have had more than 400 yards of total offense in 23 games under Head Coach Eric Wolford. YSU has eclipsed the mark in five games this season. Of his 44 contests, YSU has had more than 300 yards in 38 of them. Additionally, the Guins have scored 27-or-more points in 31 of Wolford's 44 games at the helm.

Numbers Under Wolf
    After 44 games, Head Coach Eric Wolford is now 24-20. YSU has won 19 of its last 28 games under Wolford since the mid-point of the 2011 season. A couple of good notes have come from his first 44 games regarding wins and losses. Both losses when allowing 27 or fewer points have come at UNI (21-17 in 2011 and 22-20).
• YSU is 12-0 when allowing 20 points or fewer
• YSU is 21-2 when allowing 27 points or fewer
• YSU is 22-3 when allowing 33 points or fewer

More Forced Turnovers
    In seven conference games, the Penguins have forced 13 turnovers. YSU has recovered seven fumbles and intercepted six passes.
    Last year in eight conference games, the defense created seven turnovers. Four of those came in the final two games. In the last nine conference games, the Guins have forced 17 turnovers.

Hess a Three-Time Honoree
    Senior QB Kurt Hess has been named the Missouri Valley Football Conference's Offensive Player of the Week on three occasions.
    Hess received the honors following wins over Southern Illinois, Illinois State and South Dakota.
    Against the Redbirds, he was 17-of-21 for 311 yards and four touchdowns.
    At Southern Illinois he led YSU back from a 27-13 deficit in the fourth quarter and was 25-of-37 for 258 yards and four scores.
    At South Dakota, he was 22-of-28 for 283 yards and two scores against the second-ranked pass defense in the FCS.
    In MVFC play this year, Hess has completed 104-of-156 passes for 1,323 yards and 15 touchdowns with just two interceptions. He has a passer rating of 167.07 and a completion percentage of 66.7.

Picks On the Rise
    The Penguins have intercepted 10 passes, which is six more than they had last year. The Guins had two interceptions against Dayton and Illinois State and one each against North Dakota State, UNI, Western Illinois, Morehead State, Duquesne and Indiana State.
    Including the final game of the season last year against Indiana State, YSU has 12 interceptions in the last 11 games. The Guins had two picks in the first 10 games a year ago.

Red-Zone Success
    YSU has converted at a high success rate in the red zone under Head Coach Eric Wolford.
    This year, YSU is 42-of-45 (94.0 percent) after going 4-for-4 vs. Dayton, 7-of-8 against Morehead State, 2-of-2 at Michigan State, 5-of-6 vs. Duquesne, 4-of-4 at Southern Illinois, 3-of-3 at Indiana State, 5-of-5 vs. Illinois State, 3-of-3 vs. Western Illinois, 4-of-4 at South Dakota, 3-of-3 at UNI and 2-of-3 against North Dakota State. YSU has scored touchdowns on 38 of those 45 red-zone visits.
    In his 44 games under Coach Wolford, the Penguins are an amazing 160-for-181 (88.4 percent) inside the red zone.
    The Penguins were 35-of-43 inside the red-zone in 2012 (81.7 percent).
    In 47 visits in 2011, the Penguins scored 39 touchdowns and kicked three field goals. YSU scored a total of 280 points on 42 of those 47 visits (89.4 percent).
    During Wolford's first campaign in 2010, YSU was 41-of-45 in the red zone (91.1 percent).

Providing Protection
    Under Coach Eric Wolford, YSU has allowed just 48 sacks. Senior quarterback Kurt Hess has started all of those contests. Last season, YSU allowed a school-record low eight sacks.
    The YSU offensive line has surrendered just 32 sacks in the last 34 games as well. The Guins played three quarterbacks against North Dakota State and did not allow a sack.
    Only 10 times under Wolford and assistant coach Carmen Bricillo have the Guins allowed more than one sack, and four of came in 2010.

Kickers Have Been Strong
    Senior P Nick Liste and junior PK Joey Cejudo have both been honored as MVFC Specialists of the Week - Cejudo against Morehead State and Liste at Michigan State and Western Illinois.
    Liste is averaging 44.1 yards per punt on 46 attempts. As the kickoff specialist, he has 36 touchbacks in 70 kicks. This season, over 50 percent of his kickoffs have been for touchbacks compared to 17 percent his first two years.
    Cejudo has been solid converting 48-of-49 PAT tries and making field goals from 24, 33, 34, 37, 38 and 40 yards.

League Best Start
    The Penguins opened MVFC play 5-0 for the first time in school history.
    Only three times in school history had YSU won its first four conference games - 2013, 2005 and 1999. In 2005 YSU was 5-2 in league play, and the Guins were 5-1 in 1999. YSU tied for the league title in 2005 and was second in 1999. The school record for conference wins in a season is six (6-1 in 2006).

4th-Quarter Road Rallies
    For the first time since 1999, the Penguins have had two fourth-quarter comebacks on the road in the same season. This year, YSU rallied from a 27-14 fourth-quarter deficit to win at Southern Illinois and overcame a late 34-31 deficit to beat South Dakota 38-34 in the final two minutes.
    In 1999, YSU won at Montana in the playoffs, and at UNI and Indiana State in the regular season. The Guins had five fourth-quarter comebacks that season.

Hess Holds Standards
    Senior QB Kurt Hess owns numerous school career marks that have crushed most of the previous totals.
    He owns school marks with 697 completions, 1,116 attempts, 8,788 yards, 74 touchdown passes, 24 200-yard passing games, 199.7 passing yards per game, a passer rating of 145.64 and TDs responsible for with 86.
    Hess started his 44th straight game against North Dakota State last Saturday before leaving the contest with an injury. He trails Tom Zetts' mark of 47 and could only catch him with two postseason starts.
    With his 311-yard passing performance in the win over Illinois State on Oct. 12, Hess joined former YSU QBs Trenton Lykes, Denny Klembara, Brandon Summers and Ron Jaworski as players who have multiple 300-yard passing games in their careers. Hess's previous best was 306 set against Missouri State in 2011.

Four-TD Passing Games
    Since Nov. 1, 2008, YSU quarterbacks Kurt Hess (six) and Brandon Summers (two) have combined to throw at least four touchdowns in a game eight times. That is a span of 59 games. Hess threw a school-record five touchdown passes vs. Missouri State in 2011. Also in 2011, Hess had four and Marc Kanetsky had one for a total of five against Western Illinois.
    In school history before November 2008, a group of six quarterbacks combined for eight four-passing touchdown games. YSU had played 702 games up to that point in school history.

50-Plus Point Games
    The Penguins have tied a school record with three 50-plus point games in a season. This year, YSU has scored 67 vs. Morehead State and 59 twice (Illinois State and Duquesne).
    The only other campaign the Guins scored 50-or-more points three times during a season was in 1994. YSU had 63 in the playoffs against Alcorn State and had two 52-point contests (Buffalo and Slippery Rock).
    Since Coach Eric Wolford took over, YSU has scored more than 50 points seven times.

Three is Still Important
    Under Coach Eric Wolford, YSU is a combined 27-of-34 on field-goal attempts (79.4 percent).
    First-year PK Joey Cejudo has made six-of-eight attempts this season, including a long of 40 yards against Duquesne.
    Last season, PK David Brown converted  six-of-seven attempts, including a long of 47 yards against Indiana State. In 2011, the Penguins did not make a field goal in the first eight games before converting a 28-yard kick at UNI and two (33 and 30) at North Dakota State.
    YSU was 12-of-14 in 2010.

Four-Takeaway win Streak
    YSU has won 19 straight games when it forces at least four turnovers after forcing four in the win over Duquesne. The last loss was against UNI in 2006.
    Since 2006, the Guins are 21-1 when they have at least four takeaways in a game. Last year, the single-game high was two turnovers forced, which came on four occasions. YSU caused three turnovers vs. Illinois State.

Top of the Liste
    Senior punter Nick Liste continues to be a key contributor as punter and kickoff specialist.
    Twice this year he has averaged more than 50 yards in a game - 51.0 vs. Dayton and 50.9 at Michigan State.
    He is averaging 41.5 yards per punt in his career on 177 kicks. His average ranks first in school history by 0.6 yards ahead of Nick Xides' 40.9 set back in 1982-85.
    This season, Liste has 15 punts of 50 yards or longer. His previous high for a year was eight in 2011. His average of 44.1 this season is 2.3 yards ahead of Xides' school mark of 41.8 set in 1985.
    Handling kickoff duties, last year he had 18 touchbacks after having just three in 2011. Liste has 36 in this campaign.
    As a junior, he averaged 40.7 yards per punt last season.

Numbers of Note
• Turnover Margin: Since 1996, the Penguins are 114-26 when they win or tie in the turnover margin. When committing more turnovers, YSU is just 17-53.
Since 1990 YSU is:
• 142-18-2 when holding opponents to fewer than 21 points in a game.
• 116-12 when rushing for 200-plus yards.
• 137-22 when scoring 28-or-more points.
• 73-8-1 when holding opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing in a game.
• 166-12 when leading entering the fourth.
• 74-3-2 when holding opponents to 10 points-or-less in a game.