YOUNGSTOWN - The Youngstown State Penguins have had many "must win" games during the 2012 season, but Saturday's game against Indiana State was the biggest one of all.
If they win, playoffs are still a possibility. A loss, however, would end the season and make a season filled with promise end in disappointment.
After Saturday, hope is still in the air in Youngstown.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
YSU’s Donald D’Alesio intercepts a pass intended for Indiana State’s Austin Wozinak, while YSU’s Julias Childs is also on the play.
In the regular-season finale, the Penguins stepped up in a big way, playing their most complete game of the year in all phases, leading to a 27-6 victory over the No. 18 Sycamores.
"Yes it was a complete game, and I say that because of what was at stake," senior defensive lineman Aronde Stanton said. "We went out there and laid it on the line and came out and played hard every single play. And it was always about winning that one play. That's what it's all about."
The most impressive part of the victory was that it was not on the back of one player or unit - but for the first time all season, all three phases played significant roles in the victory.
Offensively, the Penguins dominated the time of possession - having the ball for more than 36 minutes - and outgained the Sycamores in total yardage, 394-282.
Leading the offense was the resurgence of quarterback Kurt Hess. The YSU junior signal caller had been struggling since October, but against Indiana State, Hess was having his way on the field. He was 20 of 28 for 248 yards and two touchdowns, both to redshirt freshman wide receiver Andrew Williams.
The first connection of the two came on a drive that started back on the YSU 3-yard line after Donald D'Alesio picked off an Indiana State halfback pass. The Penguins eased down the field, and found themselves at first and 10 on the ISU 30. Having plenty of time to throw, Hess found Williams in the corner of the end zone on a pass that fell perfectly into his hands, giving YSU the 13-6 lead with 9:09 left in the third quarter.
The second touchdown for the duo came in the fourth quarter, this time for a 43-yard score, which iced the game. Williams finished the day with four catches for 91 yards.
"At key times when we needed to make some plays we did," YSU coach Eric Wolford said. "We took some shots too, to put the game on ice. We're not really conservative people around here, and we let it all hang out here today. I told them that was the way it was going to be today."
The third touchdown for the Penguins came from running back Jamaine Cook. Taking a toss to the left, Cook found running room after tight end Carson Sharbaugh gave a huge block and Cook was able to run in for a 24-yard score. The senior finished the day with 124 yards rushing.
Cook is a likely source of points, an unlikely source is kicker David Brown. The senior has had limited field-goal opportunities throughout his two years, but kicked probably the two biggest ones of his career on senior day.
On the Penguins' first drive of the game, Wolford opted for the field goal after being stalled on the 3-yard line, as Brown connected on a 20-yard field goal.
His second is one he will remember forever, as he kicked a career-long 47-yard field goal to give the Penguins a 6-3 lead.
The two field goals were very unlike the Penguins, as Wolford lives by the motto that "seven is better than three." But as he said after the game, sometimes three is better than zero.
"I got a little conservative, which is not like me," Wolford said with a chuckle. "It's all about the moment. I did know that going into the game, with as strong as their defense was, it was going to be a field position game. I just felt like at that time, it was the best thing to do."
While Brown was an added bonus for the Penguins, the biggest performance of the day came from the defense. The unit, which has been highly criticized throughout the year, had by far its best game. The Penguins stopped ISU's leading running back, Shakir Bell, limiting him to 54 yards on 18 carries. Bell came into the game averaging 142 yards per contest.
"The defense collectively came out and played full speed to the whistle," Stanton said. "It felt good to see that (Bell) only had 54 rushing yards after last year. We all know he had 250 yards last year. It just shows how much we've improved over the course of the season."
Even when the Sycamores tried to go to the air, the Penguins were ready. YSU came up with two interceptions (which doubled their total of the year), had six pass breakups and were disruptive throughout the game.
The only points the Sycamores (7-4, 5-3 MVFC) were able to generate came off of two first-half field goals. Quarterback Mike Perish led the offense, passing for 221 yards.
With the win, the Penguins (7-4, 4-4) now sit and wait to see if they continue to play football. If YSU makes the playoffs, the postseason would begin on Saturday.
"I'm a believer if you work hard and do things right, good things happen," Wolford said. "And we did what we can control today. We'll keep our fingers crossed."