By Drae Smith
YSU Football Reporter for Rookery Radio
YSU Football Sideline Reporter – 570 WKBN / iHeartRadio
The #15 Youngstown State football team will travel to Normal, IL this weekend to face #23 Illinois State. The Penguins come in with a record of 3-1 overall and 1-0 in the MVFC after a 30-20 win over South Dakota last Saturday. The Redbirds currently sit at 2-3 overall and 0-2 in the MVFC after falling 31-10 at North Dakota State this past weekend. Brock Spack’s team has now lost three straight after earning a 9-7 victory at Big Ten member Northwestern in non-conference play.
Illinois State leads the all-time series between the two teams 13-12 and has won the last four meetings at Hancock Stadium. The Redbirds are an impressive 20-2 at home since the start of the 2013 season. Last season, the two squads were both ranked in the top ten when they met at Stambaugh Stadium. In a closely contested game that came down to the final moments, the Redbirds came away victorious 31-29.
The Illinois State offense is in their first season without quarterback Tre Roberson and tailback Marshaun Coprich, two of the best players in the FCS over the past few seasons. The new starting QB is 6’3 sophomore Jake Kolbe who has been impressive at times this season. He has thrown for 1,271 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions through five games. Kolbe has been battling a shoulder injury over the past few weeks but is still completing an impressive 69.5 percent of his passes.
Kolbe has a big arm and will test the YSU secondary down the field. He will be throwing to a talented group of wide receivers which is led by senior Anthony Warrum. He was named first-team All-MVFC last season after accumulating 1,290 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. So far in 2016, Warrum has caught 31 passes for 485 yards and two scores. The Redbirds will have to rely even more on their passing game after losing leading rusher George Moreira last week to a broken collarbone.
The Illinois State defense suffered key losses at defensive end and linebacker coming into this season but has remained a stingy group. Five different players on the unit have at least 30 tackles and seven different Redbirds have multiple tackles for loss. The group is led by junior safety Alec Kocour who was an Honorable Mention All-MVFC selection in 2015. The Redbirds have also had success rushing the passer, collecting 13 sacks in five games. Senior linebacker B.J. Bello has led the way with four sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss.
The YSU offense will look to continue the success it has been having over the first four games. For the first time since 1983, the Penguins have gained more than 400 yards of total offense in each of their first four contests. The unit is currently ranked 9th in the FCS in rushing, 12th in total offense and third in time of possession. Senior tailback Martin Ruiz already has six rushing touchdowns after having just four all of last season.
Ruiz continues to climb the all-time career lists at Youngstown State. He is currently fifth in school history with 3,520 rushing yards and 708 career attempts. His 35 career rushing scores ranks fifth all-time and his 4,363 all purpose yards is good for fourth-best in YSU history. Ruiz will need to continue his strong play this weekend if YSU expects to earn a road victory. Junior starting QB Ricky Davis told me this week, “We have to be able to run the football. If not, we will be in big trouble.”
The YSU defense has continued to wreak havoc on opposing offenses this season. YSU and Northern Iowa are the only two FCS teams who have not allowed a rushing touchdown so far in 2016. The unit is currently ranked 10th in the FCS in rushing defense, and 11th in total defense. They have recorded 13 sacks and 22 quarterback hurries, led by elite pass rushers Derek Rivers and Avery Moss. The Penguins should be able to continue their pass rushing success against Illinois State who has given up 18 sacks in five games. The YSU secondary will face one of their toughest tests yet against the Redbirds’ down-field passing attack.
This weekend’s contest is extremely critical for both team’s postseason hopes. The Redbirds would be facing a serious uphill climb to make the playoffs if they begin conference play 0-3. Meanwhile, the Penguins are now beginning an extremely difficult stretch which includes games against perennial powers Northern Iowa and South Dakota State in the next few weeks. A win at Illinois State would go a long way towards helping YSU make their playoff hopes a reality.
Kickoff at Hancock Stadium in Normal, IL is scheduled for 3pm ET / 2pm CT. The Missouri Valley Football Conference contest will be televised locally in the Mahoning Valley on WBCB-TV. Those outside of the area can watch on ESPN3.com & the WatchESPN app. You can also listen to the game on 570 WKBN AM and iHeartRadio.