FARGO — Youngstown State will walk into Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome on Sunday with white football jerseys. That’s about the extent North Dakota State knows about the Penguins.
More may be known about the Bermuda Triangle than Youngstown. The Bison and Penguins open the spring Missouri Valley Football Conference season at 2:30 p.m. with NDSU going into the game 1-0 by virtue of an October win over Central Arkansas.
“Game week,” said Bison head coach Matt Entz. “I can’t tell you how many players I’ve had say, coach, it’s finally game week again. Super excited. There’s some routine to it and I know the players are excited about the routine we’ve created for them.”
The Penguins, meanwhile, haven’t played a game since a 21-3 win over Illinois State on Nov. 23, 2019 and that’s when Bo Pelini was their head coach. Since then, Pelini resigned at Youngstown and was hired and fired as the defensive coordinator at LSU.
New to the head coaching throne is Doug Phillips, who was an assistant coach at the University of Cincinnati his previous three seasons. He was a graduate assistant at Youngstown in 1991 and ‘92 when current Youngstown president Jim Tressel was the Penguins’ head coach.
“There’s not a true blueprint or template on how to do this,” Phillips said on a Missouri Valley virtual media day earlier this month. “Nobody has done this in the history of college football, nobody has had to play two seasons in 10 months. I look forward to seeing us execute that plan.”
The plan on Sunday is anybody’s guess for an opponent like NDSU. When Phillips was asked who was going to start at quarterback, he said, “We need them all.”
That most likely will be junior Joe Craycraft or redshirt freshman Mark Waid. Both saw time periodically last year against the Bison after YSU starter Nathan Mays got hurt. Entz said Tuesday he expects both will play.
“I think they’re both slightly different from one another,” Entz said. “I think in 2019, the game plan forced them to be the same player but we’re going to have to be able to adjust and be adaptable over the course of the game.”
Only six Youngstown players who started the 2019 final game may start against NDSU. The offensive line is virtually new and most of the defense is having to be re-tooled.
“Very few names look familiar on the two-deep,” Entz said. “It’s one of those games where we’ll have to do a tremendous job adjusting as the game unfolds. Knowing Youngstown State and knowing their tradition, I know those kids will come in here ready to play.”
Defensively, Phillips was noncommittal on any type of scheme or philosophy, saying his coaching staff first had to evaluate their players and figure out what fits them best.
“That’s where I challenged our offensive and defensive staffs,” Phillips said. “Find 24 guys who can play on offense and 24 guys who can play on defense. We’re not going to make excuses, we’re going to find players who can go out and contribute.”
Entz said the lack of information forced his staff to do extended background research. They looked at the Youngstown coaches' biographies and pulled film from their previous schools. He said NDSU has 63 games on video that Bison coaches have examined, mostly schools Phillips and his coordinators were at before YSU.
“We’ve had time so we’ve taken advantage of it,” Entz said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re going to be spot-on.”
The Bison appear to be more solidified with only a few changes to the two-deep chart since the start of practice in January. Junior wide receiver Phoenix Sproles will not play, the result of rehabilitating a knee injury suffered in the Central Arkansas game.
Sproles has been running and lifting but has yet begun to change direction with his sprints, Entz said. His prospects for the rest of the season?
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” Entz said.
Two true freshmen, linebacker Cole Wisnewski from Sparta, Wis., and cornerback Courtney Eubanks from St. Petersburg, Fla., are listed as primary backups. For at least the first couple of games, look for younger players to contribute more on special teams.
“This year it may be more inexperienced players getting their actual game reps on special teams,” Entz said. “A couple weeks from now, hoping other kids with more practice and understanding of what we’re doing will help them.”