‘Necks defeat defending national champs,

Marvin Holman

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‘Necks linebacker Jimmy Robinson shows good sportsmanship after the victory against YSU.-Mark Kennedy/Photo EditorThe Leatherneck football team entered Saturday’s Homecoming game against defending national champions and No. 1-ranked Youngstown State University with something to prove.

By the end of the game, they proved that they belong in the elite of Division I-AA with a 14-0 victory over the Penguins. It was the first time that WIU beat the top team in the nation, the first shutout since beating Eastern Illinois University 41-0 last year and head coach Randy Ball’s 57th victory, putting him over Ray “Rock” Hanson for most coaching wins.

After WIU’s first drive went cold at their own 23, senior punter Jeff Baker kicked to the YSU 34, where running back Jake Andreadis dropped the ball and senior running back Ty Kingsby recovered for WIU.

“It was a big boost. Our kids were very excited about the game and when you have success, it catches fire,” Ball said. “If you’re not successful, things get tough for you, and that was one of my biggest concerns entering the game.”

The ‘Necks cashed in seconds later as senior running back Aaron Stecker had a 20-yard touchdown run to give the ‘Necks a 7-0 lead. For Stecker, it was the 16th straight game that he has scored at least one touchdown.

“It was a draw play and that’s my favorite play because it puts me in an island with a linebacker. If I have that opportunity, then I can shake anyone in the hole,” Stecker said. “I saw (senior wide receiver Derrick) Spicer make a nice block and the rest is history.”

YSU came back on their next drive to get to the WIU 23 but were turned away when place-kicker Mark Griffin missed a 39-yard field goal attempt. The Penguins were turned away again at the start of the second quarter. This time senior linebacker James Milton forced YSU running back Adrian Brown to fumble. Junior defensive end Edgerton Hartwell recovered for the ‘Necks at the WIU 28.

The ‘Necks then went on a drive that mixed runs from Stecker and junior running back Bobby Rucka and passes from junior quarterback Mark Zanders. When the drive ended with a 9-yard pass from Zanders to senior wide receiver Kevin Walsh with 5:39 left, the ‘Necks had driven 72 yards on 16 plays that took 8:19 to complete.

“We haven’t had a real sustained drive all year and to do that against a defense like that was a tremendous accomplishment,” Ball said. “As a team, they still have a long way to go to be a great team, but we’re starting to go in the right direction, and if we can continue to keep them hungry and motivate them, then we have a chance to be a great team.”

In the third quarter, WIU mostly kept it on the ground to prevent the Penguin offense from coming on the field, as Stecker was getting carry after carry. But on only his second pass of the quarter, Zanders was intercepted by defensive back Fon Nanji at the WIU 22 with 5:10 left in the quarter.

The Penguins, however, couldn’t capitalize, as a sack by seniors defensive back Damon Stewart and linebacker Robert Lindsay and two penalties drove them back to the WIU 48.

In YSU’s first possession of the second half, the Penguins drove to the WIU 36, but quarterback Jeff Ryan was sacked by senior defensive lineman Dave Watson and junior defensive lineman David Bowens, and intercepted a play later by senior cornerback Donnie Caldwell.

Both teams’ defenses, which were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the Gateway Conference, held their own as the game went on. The only drama left was Stecker’s number of carries – he tied his own school record with 39 carries for the game.

“I know that it’s going to be hard to get the yards like I did last year because (defenses) will be focusing to stop the running game,” Stecker said. “So I placed emphasis on that, thinking, ‘relax, you know you’re not going to get a lot of big runs, but when you do, just take advantage of them.'”

On the last play of the game, a Ryan pass was intercepted by sophomore defensive back Sam Elmore, who would take to the YSU 23-yard line until being pushed out of bounds by the last man to beat.

Stecker ended up with 188 yards for the game, but Ball said the total could’ve been more. “I think the thing that people have got to understand is who knows how many yards he would’ve had if we didn’t have those penalties taking away some of his runs,” Ball said.

Zanders ended up with 68 yards on 8-of-17 passing, stats that Ball said will improve with time.

“The offensive line is doing a better job with pass protection and I’m real proud of what he (Zanders) has done and what he has accomplished,” Ball said.

Defensively, the ‘Necks held the Penguins to 289 yards of total offense, about 50 yards less than YSU averages, and gave them their first shutout since 1995.

“Our defense stepped up today. I think when the offense wasn’t there, our defense came out and picked it up,” Caldwell said. “This is my last year and it means a lot to me and coach Ball, so if we can do this against a No. 1 team then we can do it against anybody. I think Youngstown is a good team but we just came out ready to play and we did our job,” Caldwell added.

“We just needed to make some minor adjustments and when our offense scored, we knew that they were going to try to pass and that we had to go after the ball,” Bowens added.

YSU head coach Jim Tressel focused on the chances his team didn’t capitalize on. “When you face a team like Western, you can’t give bonuses away like we did and not take advantage of our bonuses,” Tressel said.

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