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Bison, Penguins prone to close games in Youngstown

FARGO — It was an August and September of doing nothing but winning for Youngstown State, which started the year 4-0, including an Aug. 24 FCS Kickoff game on ESPN against Samford. October, however, wasn’t so kind.
The weather got colder, and so did YSU. The Penguins dropped three straight — their first three Missouri Valley Football Conference games — and subsequently dropped out of the national FCS conversation.
They’re still not ranked at 5-3 overall, but a potential significant step in the right direction awaits them on Saturday night. No. 1-ranked North Dakota State comes to town and if history at Stambaugh Stadium is any indication, expect a close game.
Three of the last four games in Youngstown have been decided by five points or less.
“I think they’re really sound up front, offensive and defensive lines,” said NDSU head coach Matt Entz. “So I think that always generates a great level of competition when two teams play. I think they have good skill and coach (Bo) Pelini is an outstanding football coach, so defensively they do cause us some issues.”
The Bison won the last two games in Youngstown by the same 27-24 score, with the 2017 game going to overtime and the 2015 game being controversial for Pelini’s tirade on officials late in the fourth quarter.
Both games also had the same theme: NDSU started slow. The Penguins led 10-0 after the first quarter two years ago and still had a 17-10 lead midway in the third quarter. Cam Pedersen’s 36-yard field goal won it in overtime thanks to an NDSU defensive stop.
In 2015, the Penguins led 24-10 in the third quarter before the Bison scored two touchdowns and got a Pedersen field goal in the fourth quarter.
“For us to go on the road, we need to play well early,” Entz said. “If you remember the last time we we were out there, we didn’t play very well early and we kind of got ourselves behind the 8-ball a little bit. We need to get out and get going early in this game, establish a run game and establish playing good defense and make them earn everything.”
South Dakota State overcame a slow start earlier this month to win 38-28 in Youngstown. The Penguins rebounded in a big way last Saturday beating Western Illinois 59-14.
Quarterback Nathan Mays threw for 186 yards and four touchdowns and running back Joe Alessi ran for 156 yards. Asked what changed last week for the Penguins and Entz pointed to the YSU ground attack.
“And the quarterback Mays is getting healthy,” he said. “He had some knee issues, but he’s back in there. They’re making people having to defend more of their playbook.”
NDSU came out of the SDSU game in good shape healthwise. Cornerback Josh Hayes was named the Missouri Valley Defensive Player of the Week after a fourth-quarter interception led to NDSU’s game-winning touchdown. Hayes also had six solo tackles.
Starting fullback Garrett Malstrom warmed up prior to the SDSU game, but was not healthy enough to play. His status this week remains uncertain.
Entz said freshman running back Kobe Johnson did not get a carry against the Jackrabbits because his style didn’t fit into the game plan. Johnson is the team’s fourth-leading rusher with 350 yards, averaging 6.5 yards per carry on 54 attempts.
“He wasn’t injured or did anything wrong,” Entz said. “It’s was one of those games where he didn’t fit into our plans that much.”