Youngstown State can remain tied atop the Missouri Valley Conference standings with a victory today against Western Illinois in the homecoming game.
The Penguins (6-1, 3-0 MVC) enter ranked No. 15 in the FCS Coaches Poll and on a four-game win streak. YSU has won seven of its last eight meetings with the Leathernecks (3-4, 1-2), who have lost two straight.
YSU - Senior Kurt Hess is playing as well he has at any point in his career. He leads the conference in passing efficiency and has 15 touchdowns compared to two interceptions (both came in a Week 1 win over Dayton). On the year, he's completed 107 of 171 passes (62.6 percent) for 1,501 yards. He was named the FCS National Offensive Player of the Week after throwing for a career-high 311 yards and four touchdowns against Illinois State last week.
WIU - Redshirt freshman Trenton Norvell is going through typical freshman growing pains. He's completed only 49.5 percent of his passes and has eight interceptions and nine touchdowns. He's coming off his worst game of the season as he tossed four picks against South Dakota State. He does possess decent mobility.
EDGE - YSU
YSU - YSU coach Eric Wolford said starting running back Martin Ruiz's injured ankle won't keep him from playing against the Leathernecks. If Wolford's just keeping WIU on their heels and Ruiz is out, Warren G.?Harding-product Demond Hymes could get his first start. He saw the majority of the carries when Ruiz left last week's game in the first half. The quick and shifty Jody Webb is another option in a crowded backfield.
WIU - Junior-college transfer J.C. Baker has enjoyed a great start to the season. He's third in the MVC in rushing with 613 yards on 100 carries. He's done some of his best work against the Leathernecks' best opponents, so he should be the focal point of the YSU?defense. His bruising style is backed up by another hard runner in 5-8, 190-pound Nikko Watson.
EDGE - WIU
YSU - The Penguins' wideouts had a breakout game against Illinois State. Five different players caught passes and four caught touchdowns. The main strengths with the receivers are the depth and the variety. Some boast size and speed, others possess sure hands and run good routes, and Hess does a good job exploiting the differing skills.
WIU - A very young receiving corps might be part of the reason Norvell is struggling. Both starting wideouts are freshmen and average less than 11 yards per catch. Senior Fredson Salomon (5-9, 150) is a downfield threat as he has a 53-yard TD to his credit.
EDGE - YSU
YSU - The return of left tackle Kyle Bryant from injury is a big boost for a unit that was already playing well. The 6-7, 315-pound Bryant, a potential NFL?prospect, is a big reason YSU has allowed just eight sacks - third best in the conference. The Penguins rank second in rushing, averaging 240 yards per game.
WIU - Two starters returned up front for Western Illinois, led by preseason all-conference honoree Jimmy Holtschlag. The line has allowed 10 sacks (not bad considering it's a freshman under center) and paved the way for fifth best rushing offense in the MVC. That said, there are holes in this inexperienced group.
EDGE - YSU
YSU - The youngest group of the defense continues to show gradual improvement. Senior Kyle Sirl has done a great job leading young and inexperienced teammates.?He also leads the Penguins with 5.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Fellow defensive ends Vince Coleman and Derek Rivers have developed into solid pass-rushers with two and three sacks, respectively.
WIU - Junior Gino Durley Jr. is an up-and-coming player at defensive end. He leads WIU with 3.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. Senior Ryan Demming was an honorable mention all-conference performer in 2012 at nose tackle. End Chip Holtschlag - whose two brothers, Eddy and Jimmy, also play for the Leathernecks - is a very active player, leading the D-linemen in tackles with 26.
EDGE - YSU
YSU - The Penguins' linebackers have played well most of the year, but there haven't been many game-changing plays (sacks, big hits, interceptions) despite a lot of athleticism. Junior middle linebacker Travis Williams might have started a new trend when he crushed an Illinois State defender to force a fumble. Any big plays this week will have to come without captain Dom Rich, who is out with what Wolford called "a very complicated injury" to his pelvic bone.
WIU - Sophomore J.J. Raffelson is a rising star in the FCS. The 6-3, 235-pound weak-side linebacker was voted team co-MVP as a freshman, when led the team in tackles. He again leads the Leathernecks this year with 56 stops (13 better than the next player). Senior MLB Devon Butler is a Northern Illinois transfer who possesses good all-around skills (5.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and one interception). Junior Kevin Kintzel is another solid player, with 4.5 sacks, 1.5 sacks, one interception and five pass break-ups.
EDGE - WIU
YSU - Statistically, Youngstown State has the worst passing defense in the conference, but those numbers may be slightly skewed. While YSU has had its share of problems, much of the passing yards from opposing teams have come when the game is already in hand. The return of senior corner Dale Peterman from injury is a huge lift. He recorded his first pick of the year against Illinois State.
WIU - The Leathernecks boast one of the most experienced and talented secondaries in the conference (three of four players earned all-conference honors at some level during the preseason). WIU is second in the MVC with nine picks and fourth in passing yardage (184.4 per game). Corner Martinez Davis led the team with five interceptions last year, while fellow all-MVC?performer David McDaniel had four. They're joined by strong safety Jonathon Rollins, who's second on the team with 43 tackles and leads WIU with two picks.
EDGE - WIU
YSU - Punter and kickoff specialist Nick Liste booted seven touchbacks, putting his season total at a league-high 28 (the next closest is 17). The NFL?prospect is averaging a MVC-best 44.1 yards per punt. Joey Cejudo is perfect on field goals (4 for 4) and extra points (39 of 39). The Penguins, who have struggled with special teams the last few years, also are the conference leaders in kick return average (25.1). Andre Stubbs has been very close to breaking one for a touchdown.
WIU - Place kicker Nathan Knuffman is just 1 of 4 on field goals, with misses from 22, 23 and 42. Knuffman, who also handles punts and kickoffs, has placed 17 punts inside the 20-yard line and has seven touchbacks on kickoffs. Western Illinois is last in the MVC?by averaging 17.4 yards per kick return.
EDGE - YSU
Western Illinois isn't as bad as some of their recent losses might indicate. The Leathernecks' defense is solid in all phases, and if they weren't put in some very difficult positions by the offense, their numbers would be better. Their fate lies in the hands of their freshman quarterback. If he can limit the turnovers, WIU has a chance.
It's not a great chance because the YSU offense has been steamrolling through opponents. Momentum is a game-to-game trait, so a slow start or a few negative plays and things could change in a hurry. I don't see that happening.