Schnepf: Loss forces Youngstown State into must-win game next week
Youngstown, Ohio - Kurt Hess, the record-setting quarterback at Youngstown State, has never missed a game in his four seasons as a starter. But he was forced to watch most of Saturday's 35-17 loss to top-ranked North Dakota State with a bum ankle.
Youngstown, Ohio - Kurt Hess, the record-setting quarterback at Youngstown State, has never missed a game in his four seasons as a starter.
But he was forced to watch most of Saturday's 35-17 loss to top-ranked North Dakota State with a bum ankle. Hess also realizes he could possibly end his career without throwing one pass in a playoff game.
Plain and simple, Hess and the 15th-ranked Penguins need to beat South Dakota State at home next Saturday if it wants to guarantee itself an invitation to the FCS playoffs.
"Absolutely, it's a must-win," said Hess, whose team's overall record fell to 8-3. "If we win, we are in the playoffs. If we lose, we don't deserve to be in the playoffs."
So here we sit, with one regular-season game remaining, facing the possibility that the Missouri Valley Football Conference - supposedly the toughest league in the FCS - may end up with only two teams in the playoffs. The winner of the SDSU-Youngstown State game will get in. If it loses, Youngstown will be on the bubble for the third straight season.
Last year, the Penguins won their final game of the season, but their 7-4 record wasn't deemed good enough. Two years ago in their season finale at home, they let an 11-point halftime lead slip away before losing in the final seconds to Missouri State. No playoffs.
What was once the premier program at this level with four national championships (1991, 1993, 1994 and 1997), Youngstown State faces the possibility of missing the playoffs for the seventh straight year.
"We are going to take the approach that you don't leave it up to someone else," said Youngstown State head coach Eric Wolford, still grumbling during the postgame news conference over what he called cheap shots taken by NDSU's defense. "We've been in this situation in the past. Our objective is not to leave it up to a committee."
Youngstown's objective Saturday was to upset a top-ranked Bison team like it did two years ago in the Fargodome. The only hitch was Hess spent most of the past week with trainers, trying to rehabilitate the ankle he sprained in the third quarter during last week's loss at Northern Iowa. There is possibly some ligament damage in the ankle.
Hess tried to go Saturday but was replaced by backup Dante Nania midway through the second quarter.
"There was just too much pain," said Hess, who returned early in the second half after Nania was sent to the sidelines with a shoulder injury. "That was probably more my stubbornness trying to come back in and play."
Realizing after only three plays that the ankle was not going to let him go, Hess left the game for good. Enter redshirt freshman Tanner Garry. Playing your third-string quarterback with hopes of knocking off the two-time defending national champion wasn't exactly what Hess was hoping for.
"It was a bad week," said Hess, who remains confident he will play against SDSU. "Some things are just out of your control."
The frustration was noticeable with Wolford, still in search of his first playoff berth in his fourth season at Youngstown.
At halftime, Wolford threw a tirade during his halftime interview on the fuzzy television telecast sent back to Fargo. He was accusing the Bison of playing dirty football. He was still hot over Cole Jirik's late hit on his No. 2 quarterback, which resulted in a penalty that helped set up a Youngstown field goal that made it 14-10 at halftime.
Wolford himself was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct late in the third period. Only a few yards in front of him, the Bison defense gang-tackled Martin Ruiz, trying to strip the ball away from him. A scuffle broke out amongst the scrum. That's when Wolford went off on the officials, probably still venting over the two hits Nania sustained.
"That was a cheap shot," Wolford said in reference to Jirik's penalty that he thought warranted his ejection. "I thought it was blatant enough it should've been at least discussed."
On a day when Youngstown honored former coach Jim Tressel - the man who led them to four national championships - the current Penguins team was just not good enough to beat the current national champions. And it didn't help having Hess standing on the sidelines, wearing headsets trying to encourage his backups.
"It would've been interesting if we had Kurt Hess for the whole game," Wolford said.
"They have a lot of great players," Youngstown linebacker Dom Rich said of the Bison. "Hopefully, we can get another shot at them."
It may not happen if they can't beat South Dakota State.
Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549 or email@example.com . Schnepf's NDSU media blog can be found