Though Youngstown State continues to move up in the STATS FCS Top 25, Bo Pelini isn't exactly pleased with how his Penguins have performed during their fifth consecutive 3-1 start.
The second-year coach made that perfectly clear after Youngstown State committed four turnovers and had to hold on late in last weekend's 30-20 home win over South Dakota. In the wake of that victory, the Penguins jumped from 20th to 15th in the poll.
"I expect more," Pelini said. "There were some guys who absolutely played their tails off, but you need 11 on every snap. It's as simple as that and if you're not getting it, you're not going to be the type of football team you want to be."
Pelini is hoping to see crisper execution as his squad goes after a third straight victory Saturday at No. 23 Illinois State.
The Redbirds (2-3, 0-2 Missouri Valley Football Conference) are looking to avoid their first four-game losing streak since 2004 as they haven't won since a 9-7 victory at Northwestern on Sept. 10, but they've taken five straight home meetings in this series. They should have some extra incentive to get back on track in this matchup with a large homecoming crowd expected in Normal.
"There's no finger pointing going on right now, so I really have to complaints about how they're preparing. It's just execution in critical parts of games," said Redbirds coach Brock Spack. "We have some young or inexperienced players at critical positions and they're learning. We're going through growing pains right now."
Spack seems most concerned with a Youngstown State rushing attack that easily paces the MVFC with 262.8 yards per game. Martin Ruiz ranks first with six rushing touchdowns and second with 367 yards, while Tevin McCaster has 242 yards and two scores.
Ruiz finished with 84 yards on 18 carries and also caught a 13-yard touchdown pass with 32 seconds left before the Penguins' two-point try failed in a 31-29 home loss to the Redbirds last October.
Junior Ricky Davis provides Youngstown State (3-1, 1-0) with a dual-threat at quarterback. He's thrown for 657 yards with four touchdowns and rushed for 202 yards. Though he threw his first two interceptions of the season last Saturday, Davis set career highs with 281 passing yards and 21 rushing attempts against the Coyotes.
Illinois State may lead the conference in pass defense with 183.8 yards allowed per game, but its secondary gave up some big plays in last weekend's 31-10 loss at top-ranked North Dakota State. The Redbirds also have given up 402 rushing yards and yielded 65 points over their last two games.
"I expect that we're going to get their best shot," said Pelini, who admits this will be his team's toughest test since a 38-21 loss to West Virginia. "I'm not worried about Illinois State. I'm worried about us, getting us right and increasing our level or execution."
Star defensive end Derek Rivers has done his part, sitting in a tie for third in the league with four sacks. Avery Moss also has tormented quarterbacks with three sacks for the Penguins, who rank second in total defense with 300.8 yards allowed per game.
The Redbirds, eighth in rushing offense, would certainly like to run the ball better to help neutralize Rivers and Moss, but leading rusher George Moreira (287 yards, 3 TDs) could be out for the season due to a broken collarbone. Those duties could fall to second-leading rusher Jamal Towns, though Spack hinted that true freshman James Robinson also might be given an opportunity.
AROUND THE MVFC=
The only matchup between league unbeatens takes place Saturday when Missouri State (3-1, 1-0) hosts No. 1 North Dakota State (4-0, 1-0). The Bears, coming off their first victory over a ranked foe since 2013, will try to end the Bison's 13-game winning streak.
Quarterback Aaron Bailey, who had four touchdowns in a 42-21 win over Southern Illinois last weekend, looks to lead No. 11 Northern Iowa (2-2, 1-0) to its first 2-0 league start since 2011 on Saturday when the Panthers travel to South Dakota (1-3, 0-1).
No. 13 Western Illinois (3-1, 0-1) hopes to bounce back from its first loss, a 52-14 beating at South Dakota State, on Saturday when it welcomes Indiana State (3-2, 1-1) to Macomb. The Leathernecks have won the last three meetings.
No. 12 South Dakota State (2-2, 1-0), which is averaging a league-best 45 points, will try to keep putting up big numbers Saturday night when it visits Southern Illinois (2-2, 0-1). The Salukis allowed 42 in a 21-point loss at Northern Iowa last week.