YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Bo Pelini isn't buying into the storyline that his Youngstown State football team will play top-ranked North Dakota State tough just because games between the teams in recent years have been close.
"Different team, different year," Pelini said at his weekly press conference Tuesday, Oct. 29. "We're going to have to play well. That's what it comes down to. You have to count on their best shot. They are going to play well."
The Bison and Penguins play at 5 p.m. Saturday at Stambaugh Stadium, where the teams played three-point games in 2015 and 2017 in which NDSU had to rally for victories. The 2017 game went to overtime, won on a Cam Pedersen field goal. Last season at the Fargodome, the Bison grinded out a 17-7 victory over Youngstown State in a game that was as difficult as any in NDSU's unbeaten national championship season.
Even as NDSU has rolled to seven Football Championship Subdivision national titles in eight years and compiled a 120-8 record since 2011, often winning by lopsided scores, the Penguins have proved to be a tough opponent for the Bison even in years when Pelini's team hasn't met expectations.
Last year was the perfect example. The Penguins came to Fargo with a 3-5 record, one week after getting thumped 43-17 by Indiana State. But Youngstown State gave the Bison everything they could handle, scoring a touchdown in the third quarter to tie the game 7-7. The Bison scored 10 fourth-quarter points, including a crucial field goal by Pedersen with 5:13 left, to squeeze out a victory.
"You've got to play physical. You've got to play smart," Pelini said. "You have to be disciplined against this group and you have to execute at a high level."
After a 4-0 non-conference start to this season, the Penguins dropped their first three Missouri Valley Football Conference games before beating Western Illinois 59-14 last week. The low point for Youngstown State came Oct. 19 at Southern Illinois, when the Salukis won 35-10. Southern Illinois had nine quarterback sacks in that game and held Youngstown State to 241 total yards.
Senior quarterback Nathan Mays has recovered from a leg injury sustained in the conference opener at Northern Iowa and led a Penguins' offense that racked up 524 yards against Western Illinois. Youngstown State was balanced, getting 276 yards passing and 248 running.
Pelini said playing NDSU will be a different challenge.
"Our guys respect them. How can you not respect the success this team's had?" Pelini said. "Our team knows what it is up against. They know what's required. I think they will answer the bell."
Pelini, in his fifth year at Youngstown State after signing a three-year contract extension in January, has yet to beat NDSU despite three close games in the previous four seasons. He said this year's Bison team looks a lot like past teams, despite the change in head coaches from Chris Klieman to Matt Entz and a host of new players.
"Get outside of the funding and all the different things they do, the support they get, that's all pretty special for this level of football, and they have a system and they kind of know what they want to do," Pelini said. "They've kind of kept it in-house. They've had continuity. They have their system and they run it and they run it at a high level. That's a testament to good football teams and good programs. They are going to run what they run and they are going to make you stop it."
Youngstown State linebacker Cash Mitchell said beating Western Illinois was a confidence booster after three straight losses. He said NDSU is a big game, but that the Bison are "beatable."
"I've played these guys for four years and it's always been so close, coming to the end of the game," Mitchell said. "We just have to find that edge at the end of the game to win.
"They are pretty physical. They run the ball a lot. But I like our physicality, too. It's going to be a fun week."