YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Even if Youngstown State football coach Bo Pelini knew his intentions at quarterback for Saturday’s 1 p.m. game against Illinois State at Stambaugh Stadium, ISU coach Brock Spack would not expect Pelini to declare them.
“I’m sure they are close-lipped about it. There is a lot of gamesmanship played,” Spack said. “I don’t blame them. I would do the same thing.”
The Penguins have three signal-calling options entering a must-win homecoming game. Youngstown is 3-4 overall after three straight losses by a combined margin of 11 points and 1-3 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
“We’ll make our (quarterback) decision as the week goes on,” said Pelini. “We have three guys I think are capable of playing winning football and have played winning football for us.”
Senior Hunter Wells led the Penguins to the FCS national championship game last season but has been bothered by a sore shoulder and has played in just three games while attempting 38 passes.
Sophomore Nathan Mays has played the most (72 of 108 for 889 yards) but is believed to be nursing a sore ankle.
Senior Ricky Davis is listed as a wide receiver but would start if Wells and Mays are unavailable. Davis is a running quarterback who completed just 6 of 18 for 89 yards but rushed for 97 at Hancock Stadium in 2016 as Youngstown downed the Redbirds, 20-6.
The Penguins gave up 10 sacks and rushed for just 47 yards in last week’s 19-14 loss at Northern Iowa.
“I hope they are disappointed, disgusted, I could go on with the adjectives. I know I am,” Pelini said. “I thought we had a pretty good week of preparation, but it didn’t show up in the game. We’ll take it for what it is and move forward.”
Youngstown boasts the MVFC’s No. 2 rusher in junior Tevin McCaster, who has netted 624 yards.
“We’re fired up and ready to go. Everyone is locked in. No one is happy with what’s been going on,” McCaster said. “We’re ready to step up and make a change.”
ISU (5-2, 3-1 in the Valley) appears rejuvenated by a 37-21 victory over then-No. 4-ranked South Dakota last week that followed two losses.
“We’ve got to take the same enthusiasm as last week. They are going to be amped up because it’s their homecoming so we know we’ve got to bring energy,” Redbird defensive tackle Dalton Keene said.
“We’ve got to show we’re not backing down. Last year they beat us on our homecoming and that stuck with us.”
Youngstown limited ISU quarterback Jake Kolbe to 10 completions in 26 passes for 134 yards last season. Penguins ends Derek Rivers and Avery Moss, then seniors who are both now in the NFL, combined to sack Kolbe five times.
“It’s a very salty defense,” Spack said of a unit led by safeties Kyle Hegedus and Jalyn Powell and linebackers Lee Wright and Armand Dellovade. “They’ve been stingy. They are very physical and hard to run on.”
ISU could benefit from the expected return of wide receiver Christian Gibbs, who has missed the last two games with a toe injury. Spencer Schnell has 43 receptions for 609 yards, and James Robinson has rushed for 564.
“Our job as receivers is to get off the press (coverage) and get open,” said Gibbs. “Whatever we’ve got to do to do that, we’re going to do it.”
Either team could lay claim to being higher ranked. The Redbirds are 16th in one national poll with the Penguins 21st. Another ranking has Youngstown No. 19 and ISU No. 21.