By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
HARRISONBURG, VA. — Life on the road during the Football Championship Subdivision season can be a grind, with the travel and the rigors of keeping tabs on 125 teams.
But it can also be a place where you have undisturbed time to catch up on such things as film study.
Last year, I was preparing to cover the national semifinals and had the opportunity to spend a few days around the George Southern campus as the Eagles got ready for a trip to North Dakota State.
On one particular afternoon, before the Eagles practiced, I holed up in the Georgia Southern film room to figure out what only one team managed to do last season.
I wanted to watch how Youngstown State had beaten a North Dakota State team that was on its way to a national championship.
Obviously, Georgia Southern couldn't accomplish what the Penguins did and neither could Sam Houston State in the NCAA Division I Football championship game.
As we approach the midway point of the 2012 campaign, no one else has managed to execute a game plan that has beaten the Bison either.
Youngstown State will return to the scene of the crime — the massively noisy and jammed-packed Fargo Dome — on Saturday at 2 p.m. to try to show that its 2011 victory — a 27-24 decision — was no fluke.
The latest meeting between the two Missouri Valley Football Conference powers could have even more repercussions than last season. NDSU (4-0 overall, 1-0 in conference) is the consensus No. 1-ranked team in FCS, while Youngstown State (4-0, 1-0) is now No. 2 in the CSJ Top-25.
It is also a game that could ultimately decide the MVFC championship and may also have huge implications on the seeding process when the 20-team playoff field is announced in November.
Last year, YSU needed the win to keep its playoff hopes alive. Unfortunately, the Penguins were still basking in the sunshine of that win and lost to 2-9 Missouri State, 38-34.
It wasn't exactly the final statement the 7-4 Penguins wanted to make to the NCAA Division I football committee and YSU was left at the alter when the tournament field was announced the next morning.
Despite that stunning regular-season-ending loss, the fact remains that Youngstown State accomplished a significant feat in handing the Bison their only loss in the past 19 games.
On that December afternoon in Statesboro, one thing I found out for sure, the Penguins earned their win.
North Dakota State seemed poised for another victory in the first half when the Bison pounded out a 21-10 lead before its adoring fans late in the first half, but there should have been some concern when YSU quarterback Kurt Hess led the Penguins on a clutch drive in the final two minutes and scored on a one-yard run with 17 seconds left to cut it to 21-17.
Then in the second half, YSU's defense took control, with some strategic help from the offense. NDSU managed only a third-quarter field goal the rest of the way.
Youngstown State limited the Bison to 293 yards of total offense and built a 15-minute advantage in time of possession.
North Dakota State quarterback Brook Jensen never found a comfort zone as he was harassed by the YSU pass rush. Jensen finished 11-of-22 passing for 133 yards — quite a downturn for one the most efficient passers in FCS.
Sam Ojuri led the rushing attack with 14 carries for 104 yards and two first-half touchdowns, but the lack of balance between the run and pass was troublesome for the Bison and a pair of fumbles proved costly.
On offense, YSU was just the opposite of NDSU. Hess was brilliant, going 20-of-24 for 237 yards and two TDs in the passing and the Jamaine Cook-led running attack piled up 214 yards — 147 of them from the workhorse Cook, who carried 33 times.
Hess fired one interception, but was near perfect, otherwise, against the normally aggressive Bison defense. There were no other turnovers for YSU.
A 10-yard rushing score by Cook and a Ryan Jastram field goal gave the Penguins a three-point lead in the third period and YSU played keep-away to make sure it held up.
What Youngstown State managed that no playoff team could was that it was able to keep NDSU off-balance with its combination of Hess and his strong-armed passing and Cook's ability to bang on the Bison defense in a way that few other running backs have in the past two years.
Due to the addition of South Dakota and the ensuing scheduling changes that resulted in an unbalanced league slate, YSU must come into the Fargo Dome again.
But at least the Penguins won't be intimidated.
One of the most intriguing elements of this game will be to see how the two teams, with many of the same actors in leading roles, will make adjusts to the strategic elements of the contest.
You know that North Dakota State will give the Penguins its best effort, but you also know that YSU knows how to execute something no one else has accomplished in recent times — beating the Bison.
It should make for one of the most memorable games in FCS of the 2012 season.