Penguins Off to a Rocky Start: Illinois defeats YSU 28-17 in Season Opener

Youngstown State’s Martin Ruiz (29) past the University of Illinois’ Taylor Barton (3) and Mason Monheim (43) during the first quarter of Saurday afternoon’s matchup at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois. Dustin Livesay | The Jambar.

Momentum is a key factor in any college football game. The energy from the crowd and the excitement of the players makes college football so unique. YSU discovered that you can’t let momentum slip away in college football.

The Youngstown State football team traveled to Champaign, Illinois on Saturday to play the University of Illinois in their season opener. The Fighting Illini had all the momentum by the fourth quarter. In the final 10:57 Illinois scored 14 unanswered points.

Offense was hard to come by in the first quarter. The Penguins accumulated on 58 yards of total offense. The YSU offense got their first taste of momentum when they completed a ten play 33 yard drive that resulted in a field goal. That field goal gave the Penguins a 3-0 lead as time expired in the first quarter.

The offense picked up in the second quarter as the Fighting Illini scored the only touchdown of the first half. Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt completed an eight yard touchdown to Jon Davis to give the Illini a 7-3 lead. The Penguins scored another field goal to trim the Illinois lead to 7-6 at the end of the first half.

YSU took a 9-7 lead in the third quarter after the Penguins put together a 12 play 54 yard drive. Unfortunately, Lunt started to find his groove during the third quarter. Lunt completed 7-12 passes for 45 yards.

I think as the game progressed, he got better and better and better. He showed his arm strength. As Wes responded, the offense responded and we won a football game,” Illinois Head Coach Tim Beckman said.

The Fighting Illini took a 14-9 lead in the beginning of the fourth quarter after quarterback Wes Lunt completed his second touchdown pass of the game to Mike Dudek. The lead didn’t last for long as the Penguins put together a scoring drive.

Ruiz scored a two yard touchdown run and Nania followed the touchdown by running for a successful two-point conversion to increase the Penguin lead to 17-14. The Illini regained control of the game during their next two possessions however, when Lunt led the Illinois offense to back-to-back touchdown drives.

YSU’s defense kept the Illini offense in check during the first half. The Penguins’ defense only allowed 129 total yards in the first half. Star Illini running back Josh Ferguson was held to a total of 19 yards in the first half. The defense had trouble maintaining that energy as the fast-pace offense found its rhythm.

Coach [Jamie] Bryant had a good plan and obviously Illinois’ coaching staff was very complimentary of them. And we can build on that. That’s something encouraging,” YSU Head Coach Eric Wolford said.

The offense focused on running the football against the Illini defense. Wolford and his coaching staff relied on running back Martin Ruiz to shoulder most of the heavy lifting. Ruiz finished with 32 carries for 121 yards and one touchdown. Although the Penguins ran the ball effectively, they we’re unsuccessful in the passing game.New starting quarterback Dante Nania looked uncomfortable early in his first start. During the first half Nania was 5-10 for 84 yards. Nania finish 11-24 for 177 passing yards, and 12 carries for 63 rushing yards. Most of Nania’s passes were short completions and allowed his receivers to try to create yards after the catch. The offense didn’t attempt many passes down the field, and when the play called for a deep throw, the offense had a difficult time making it.

Offensively, we were 5-19 on third down. That’s something that you can’t win many football games doing,” Wolford said. “We were able to possess the football, which was something that we wanted to do. We’ve just got to be a lot better on third down and when you get the ball in the red zone, we have to score touchdowns.”