The first half of the season is over, and the Youngstown State University football team is ready for what’s ahead.
“Non-conference is all fine and dandy, but conference is where you measure your team’s ability, especially in this conference,” senior defensive end Kyle Sirl said.
The Penguins (3-1) open conference play on Saturday at Southern Illinois University (2-2), the first of eight Missouri Valley Football Conference battles.
“There’s not one team you can look past,” junior wide receiver Christian Bryan said. “Any team has potential to make a run and beat anyone on any given day. To start off 1-0 in conference play would be great. It will just ultimately help us reach our goal at the end of the year.”
The Penguins’ biggest success this season, offensively, is the rushing attack, averaging 238.8 yards per game. Freshman Martin Ruiz surpassed senior Adaris Bellamy on Saturday as the team’s leader with 263 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.
Ruiz’s success has earned him a spot behind senior running back Torrian Pace but may change come game time. Head coach Eric Wolford did not announce who the starter will be.
“Yesterday [Monday], we didn’t know if Torrian was going to practice or not, but he came out,” Wolford said. “We’ll call that thing when it gets closer to game time. What’s great is that you have a lot of competition.”
YSU has a tough challenge against the SIU Salukis, who lead the conference and rank ninth in the nation in rushing defense — allowing 83.5 rushing yards per game. They have held their opponents to 50 rushing yards or fewer in four of their last six games since 2012.
“Something’s got to give. They’ve got a good scheme,” Wolford said.
With that being said, YSU’s rushing attack has helped senior quarterback Kurt Hess and the receivers.
“A great passing game’s best friend probably is the rushing game,” Bryan said. “When you’re running the ball well, your sucking them up and then get to hit them with the play action. When we’re balanced, that’s when we’re at our best. The better they do, the better it’ll help us out.”
One key to the Salukis’ offense is senior quarterback Kory Faulkner. He has thrown for 949 yards, 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He has also rushed for 57 yards on 16 carries.
“I think they’ve been doing a good job of being creative as far as getting the ball out of his hand,” Wolford said. “They’re finding ways to get the ball out of his hands quickly. They’ve opened it up scheme-wise.”
YSU defeated the Salukis at their place, 35-23, in 2011. SIU returned the favor with a 38-21 victory at Stambaugh Stadium. YSU committed four turnovers in the fourth quarter.
“I feel like they stole one from us last year,” Sirl said.
Revenge is on the minds of the players as well as kicking off the conference schedule with a win. Game time is 7:00 p.m. and can be seen on ESPN3.com. The game can also be heard on 570 WKBN and iHeartRadio.com.
“I like road games in the fact that I have the kids in my possession basically since noon on Friday,” Wolford said. “I don’t have to worry about distractions. I don’t have to worry about parents hanging around, to worry about Suzie Q calling in the middle of the night — all those kind of things.
“I like to have them with me, thinking about football and getting ready.”