Opposing running backs have haunted Western Illinois this season, toying with the Leathernecks like notorious gunslingers tormenting an unprotected Old West town. On Saturday, yet another elusive villain emerged.
Jamaine Cook, an intimidating 5-foot-9, 205-pound junior running back, scored 2 touchdowns to help host Youngstown State gun down Western, 56-14. The game was played before 11,583 fans at Stambaugh Stadium in Youngstown, Ohio.
Cook - currently the third-leading rusher in the Football Championship Subdivision, averaging over 130 yards per game - rushed for 111 yards on 17 carries, and his mug will undoubtedly be the next one to appear on Western's ever-expanding wall of Most Wanted Running Back posters.
Youngstown State (5-3, 3-2 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference), which was celebrating its Homecoming Game, appeared to be fired up from the opening whistle.
On the first play from scrimmage, sophomore quarterback Kurt Hess threw a 70-yard strike to a wide-open Christian Bryan for a touchdown, giving the Penguins an early 7-0 lead.
Leathernecks head coach Mark Hendrickson blamed the touchdown on poor execution. "Well, we gotta execute right off the bat," said Hendrickson, whose team dropped to 2-6, 1-3 with the loss. "(On) snap one, we allowed a long touchdown pass. We have to be able to execute on snap one."
One bright spot for Western was Nikko Watson. The true freshman running back ran for 149 yards on 30 carries and 1 touchdown. Watson was in the lineup due to injuries to starters Caulton Ray and Bryce Flowers.
Also sharing the load with Watson was red-shirt freshman Larry Patterson, who rushed for 9 yards on 8 carries. "The starting running backs we had were out, and me and Nikko got the call to step up today," Patterson said. "We did all we could today. It was a tough loss. All we can do is learn from it and get better."
Western was forced to punt on its first possession, but the Leathernecks' defense held, forcing the Penguins to punt as well.
However, Western punt returner Myers Hendrickson was hit hard and the ball popped loose. Youngstown State recovered, and took over at Western's 18-yard line.
Two plays into the drive, Hess (8 of 11, 224 yards, 4 touchdowns) ran an option play and scampered into the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead with 8:55 left in the first quarter.
Western senior linebacker Kevin Palermo said he wasn't happy with the overall defensive performance the Leathernecks displayed Saturday.
"Obviously we allowed quite a few points," Palermo said. "We're going to have to go in and watch film (on Sunday), and look at what we did wrong. Some of it was game plan, some of it (was) busted (plays) on our part, so we have to watch film and try to win on the road next week."
After Western was forced to punt on its next series, Youngstown State drove 69 yards on 9 plays, capped by a 2-yard touchdown run by Cook, to give the Penguins a 21-0 advantage with 3:26 left in the first quarter.
After the Leathernecks were again forced to punt, a 69-yard bomb from Hess to Jelani Berassa put Youngstown State ahead 28-0 after one quarter.
Junior quarterback Josh Hudson, who had 2 interceptions in Western's 31-17 upset loss to Missouri the previous Saturday, struggled again. Hudson completed just 10 of 21 passes for 93 yards, throwing 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions.
Hudson's first interception came on Western's opening drive of the second quarter, as his pass was tipped then hauled in by Penguins defensive tackle Aronde Stanton.
After another rushing touchdown by Cook put the Penguins up 35-0, Hendrickson decided it was time for a change, and called upon backup quarterback Will Lunt.
Lunt completed his first pass to wide receiver Charles Chestnut for 10 yards, then injured his ankle three plays later and missed the rest of the game. Hudson would return for the Leathernecks on their next offensive series.
After Western forced Youngstown State to punt, Hudson threw his second interception of the day, this one picked off by Penguins cornerback Demond Hymes. The 5-foot-9, 190-pound freshman would have had a pick-six, but the TD was called back due to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Penguins that left the ball on Western's 17-yard line.
However, the penalty did not faze the Penguins. Hess only needed one play to connect for another score, passing to Kevin Watts in traffic in the corner of the end zone. At the half, Youngstown State led Western 42-0.
The Penguins came out strong in the second half, forcing Western to punt on its first possession. The Penguins capitalized, with Hess hooking up with Kintrell Disher for a 28-yard touchdown pass, the first of Disher's collegiate career, to put Youngstown State ahead, 49-0.
The touchdown pass was Hess's fourth through the air, tying a Youngstown State record for most TD passes in a single game.
Western's only bright spots offensively came in the third quarter, with Watson running for a 5-yard touchdown, and in the fourth quarter, when Hudson found his favorite target, senior wide receiver Terriun Crump, in the back of the end zone for a 4-yard TD. Crump finished with 5 receptions for 47 yards.
"That touchdown was a fade-out pass," Crump said. "We work on it every week in practice (but we) never did it in a game. That was my first time doing it.
"(The defender) bit for the fade, and the ball came out of Josh's hands a little wobbly," Crump added. "His thumb was messed up, but I didn't care, I was still going to make a play for the team."
After the game, Hendrickson didn't attempt to hide his disappointment.
"I guess what happened today was pretty obvious," Hendrickson said. "When the game started, we took the field ready to play, but on the early snaps of the game, we didn't execute. As simple as it sounds, 11 players have to do their job each time. Ten players could do it, nine players may do it very well, but if one or two don't, it can result in a big play against you, and that's what happened in the first half."
The Leathernecks coach that there were positives to take from the defeat.
"I'm proud of the team for never giving up," Hendrickson said. "I'm proud of them for coming back and the defense making some stops late, and forcing the ball to be punted in the second half, and I'm proud of the offense for scoring two touchdowns in the second half."
The Leathernecks may need more than two touchdowns next weekend as they take on in-state rival Illinois State (6-3, 4-2). The red-hot Redbirds have won four straight, and are coming off of a 38-30 win at Southern Illinois. Game time on Saturday at Hancock Stadium in Normal, Ill. is 1 p.m.