YOUNGSTOWN - As a fifth-year senior, Youngstown State receiver Jelani Berassa has watched fellow senior Kurt Hess warm up plenty of times over the years, but Berassa noticed something different on this night.
"Before the game started, we was doing warm-ups, and I said to Kurt, 'Man, I don't know what it is, but I feel something's in you today,' " Berassa said.
Hess laughed it off.
Tribune Chronicle / Dave Dermer
Youngstown State’s Andrew Williams (80) and Nate Adams (44) celebrate after a Williams’ touchdown in the second quarter. The Penguins scored at will Saturday, defeating Illinois State, 59-21.
"I told him it was just the lights playing games with his head," he said.
Channeling his inner Yoda, Berassa's sense was right on - and so was Hess.
He threw for a career-high 310 yards and four touchdowns, most of which came in the first half, as the Penguins dismantled Illinois State, 59-21, to move to 6-1 and 3-0 in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Hess completed 17 of 21 passes and all four of his TDs came in the first half, when No. 16-ranked YSU rolled to a 38-14 lead over the Redbirds (2-4, 1-2). He threw a near-perfect 67-yard touchdown pass down the middle of the field to Marcel Caver, hitting the speedy sophomore in stride. That came a few minutes after he tossed a similar touchdown pass to another up-and-coming sophomore, Andrew Williams. Hess also threw a 10-yard TD pass to Berassa during a 31-point second quarter, and he added a 2-yard strike to tight end/fullback Carson Sharbaugh in the first quarter.
"That's what you expect from Kurt Hess," YSU coach Eric Wolford said. "He's a student of the game. He's got a lot of guys around him who are weapons, so he can spread the field. We really expect that from Kurt. And we have a lot of good, young receivers."
Nine different players caught passes, led by Caver, who made three receptions for 99 yards and one touchdown. Williams had three catches for 68 yards and a TD, while Andre Stubbs (another sophomore) snagged three passes for 50 yards. They overshadowed a running game that churned out 273 yards and four touchdowns.
True freshman Martin Ruiz led the ground attack with 85 yards and one touchdown on eight carries. Jody Webb added 76 yards on seven touches, and Warren G. Harding graduate Demond Hymes, finally nearing 100 percent after an ankle injury, ran for 65 yards and one score on a team-high nine carries. He took over after Ruiz limped off the field in the second quarter with an ankle injury.
Overall, the offense piled up 569 total yards and set a record for points scored against an MVC opponent.
"Preparation," said Berassa of why the offense performed so well. "Coming into the game, coach said we was going to take some shots, and that's what we did. We just executed the game plan - and Kurt was on point."
The defense wasn't bad either, forcing three turnovers (one forced fumble, two interceptions) in the first half and making three sacks. The 'D' shut down Illinois State after the Redbirds engineered a 75-yard touchdown drive to open the game.
Wolford said it was one of best overall performances of the season for YSU, which blew a 28-7 lead against Illinois State last year, a game that essentially kept them out of the playoffs.
"If we want to go out and prove that we're a different team than we were last year, the only way to do it is to get on stage and play, and that's what we did," Wolford said. "This is a very humble team and a very hungry team. We've got an edge to us, and we've got to keep that edge."
The Penguins will have that chance at home against Western Illinois (3-4, 1-2). Kickoff is set for 4 p.m.