Two-time defending national champs NDSU Bison irritate Penguins

YOUNGSTOWN – Eric Wolford just blurted it out.

He couldn’t help it. The Youngstown State University coach was thinking the same thing as everyone else at Stambaugh Stadium, and he couldn’t hold back.

“It would have been interesting to see if we had Kurt Hess the whole game,” Wolford said.

Yes, yes it would have.

But that wasn’t the case as the Penguins tangled with top-ranked North Dakota State on Saturday. YSU’s record-breaking quarterback missed almost the entire game because of an ankle injury suffered last week, and his absence was certainly felt in a 35-17 loss to the Bison, who earned an outright Missouri Valley Conference title and a playoff berth with the victory.

Hess, a senior who holds numerous school records, started the game and led the Penguins (8-3, 5-2 MVC) on an 80-yard touchdown drive, giving YSU a 7-0 lead. But Hess said the pain in his ankle intensified as the game wore on, and by the time the second quarter rolled around, back-up quarterback Dante Nania had taken over.

“It was fine for a while, but just too much pain,” said Hess, who practiced sparingly the past five days. “We knew during the week that I didn’t progress like I wanted. … We wanted to give it a go and see if it loosened up – see if I had more strength and some confidence in it – but at the end of the day, it just wasn’t ready.”

His replacement didn’t last long – and neither did YSU’s lead. The Bison (10-0, 7-0) moved 75 yards on six plays, scoring on a 3-yard pass from quarterback Brock Jensen to fullback Andrew Bonnet. They went up 14-7 after a YSU punt led to a 10-yard pass from Jensen to wide receiver Ryan Smith. That’s when Nania started to make some plays.

A better runner than a passer, Nania scrambled a few times for first downs and then created time in the pocket to find receivers, but any kind of rhythm he had was lost on the Penguins’ final drive before halftime. NDSU defensive end Cole Jirik hit Nania well after he released the ball on a third-down play, and while the roughing-the-passer penalty gave YSU a first down and nearly allowed it to tie the game, it also injured Nania’s shoulder. The Penguins settled for a field goal.

The hit infuriated Wolford, who used a curse word moments later during a halftime interview with a local radio station.

“(The hit) was a cheap shot,” said Wolford, who also had a 15-yard penalty called on him in the third quarter for unsportsmanlike conduct. “I guess (the late hit) is part of the game, but that was something that I thought was unnecessary.”

Despite the injuries and some inconsistent play on both sides of the ball, YSU trailed the two-time defending national champions just 14-10 at halftime and got the ball after the half. Nania’s day got worse at that point. The sophomore was hit hard on a quarterback keeper and fumbled it over to North Dakota State on YSU’s second play. The hit further worsened his injury, and he didn’t return. The Bison capitalized with a touchdown and a 21-10 lead. Hess tried to come back on the next drive but was in obvious pain and left for good after a three-and-out.

“That’s probably my stubbornness, trying to come back in and play quarterback,” Hess said. “I wanted to push myself again and see if it felt any better, and it really didn’t.”

Things appeared to be unraveling for YSU at that point. Jensen threw his fourth touchdown pass of the game to give NDSU a 28-10 lead, and third-string quarterback Tanner Garry was taking the first snaps of his career. Garry wasn’t fazed by the moment though. He led YSU to the Bison’s 21-yard line, and the Penguins faced a second-and-8 when Wolford was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. The drive sputtered, and a 44-yard field-goal attempt by Joey Cejudo was blocked.

YSU’s defense responded by forcing a fumble, and Garry hit Nate Adams on a 24-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-2 to cut the lead to 28-17. The Penguins forced a punt on the next possession, and the momentum seemed to be changing, but Garry made a bad decision on first down, launching a deep ball well past his receiver and into the arms of NDSU safety Christian Dudzik. The Bison scored to go up 35-17 at the 5:44 mark of the fourth quarter and put the game out of reach.

The Penguins now face what looks like a must-win situation next Saturday against South Dakota State (7-4, 4-3). The winner will likely make the playoffs, while the loser is probably out of the equation.

“It’s do or die,” Hess said. “If we win, we deserve to be in the playoffs. If we lose, we don’t deserve to be in the playoffs.”