CARBONDALE — A lot like Missouri State last week, Youngstown State will test SIU's teamwork on defense today at Saluki Stadium.
The Penguins run a lot of misdirection plays, some option, and are expected to have original starting quarterback Hunter Wells back in uniform when they kick off at SIU at 1 p.m. Wells has missed the last few weeks with an injury but began throwing this week, Youngstown State coach Bo Pelini said, and is expected to be available. Senior Ricky Davis, last week's league offensive player of the week after throwing for two touchdowns and running for two more at Indiana State, is slated to start for the Penguins.
SIU safety Ryan Neal, one of 14 seniors set to be honored before today's game, said recognizing the right Penguin to attack is almost as difficult as the pursuit.
"Everybody gotta read somebody different, and that, in turn, just makes everything work out together," said Neal, a fourth-year senior who has played cornerback and safety. "Once you take your eyes off what you're supposed to look at, that's when everything falls apart, so you just gotta be real disciplined in practice, and we know coach be hooking us up with the game plan and everything. Everybody just has to be on their job."
Youngstown State (4-5, 2-4 Missouri Valley Football Conference) averages 212.3 yards a game on the ground, the second-most in the league. The Penguins' 289 yards against the Sycamores last weekend was the fourth time this season they went over 200 in a game. Tevin McCaster (727 yards, 10 touchdowns), Christian Turner (368, one score) and Joe Alessi (172, three touchdowns) could all carry the ball out of the backfield today.
Missouri State gashed SIU's defense for 178 yards on the ground and 265 through the air in last week's 36-28 victory at Saluki Stadium. Jason Randall's 62-yard run in the fourth quarter helped seal the win against a defense that has struggled to force turnovers in its five losses. The Salukis (4-5, 2-4), who have forced 19 turnovers this season, the third-most in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, have forced 16 of them in their four victories and three in their five losses.
SIU turned it over twice last weekend against Missouri State, leading to 10 Bears points in their eight-point victory. Sophomore quarterback Tanner Hearn threw an interception in the end zone, and fumbled on a scramble deep in his own territory. The Salukis have scored only two of their last seven red zone possessions after starting quarterback Sam Straub was injured at South Dakota Oct. 28.
"For us to take that next step, we've gotta become a more sound football team," SIU coach Nick Hill said. "We can't give up kick returns. We can't give up seven 15-yard penalties. We can't turn the ball over twice and give them the ball at the 15-yard line. We can't turn it over at the 10, when you've gotta have a score before the half, when you've got the ball. That's what's standing between us, and two extra wins this season, and going and playing for the playoffs."
Neal's 211 career tackles rank tied for 36th in school history. Cornerback Craig James, a transfer from Minnesota who played four straight years like Neal, is tied for ninth in SIU history with 18 pass breakups. Running back Cameron Walter is 30 yards away from 1,000. Senior tackle Austin Olsen, who briefly stepped away from the game this year to pursue physical therapy school before deciding to come back, is expected to make his 32nd straight start.
SIU closes the season at No. 11/13 Western Illinois Nov. 18.