YOUNGSTOWN - Eric Wolford didn't dodge the question.
The Youngstown State University football coach fielded a number of inquiries about the Penguins' matchup with Michigan State on Saturday, but this one might be the one on most fans' minds.
Can a Football Championship Subdivision team like YSU compete, physically, with a team from the Big Ten?
"The biggest matchup you'll see on Saturday is going to be at the line of scrimmage," said Wolford, referring to the Penguins' offensive and defensive linemen versus those of the Spartans. "They've got some big old boys on their offensive line, and over the course of four quarters, can you match their physical play? That's going to be the question."
Trying to answer it by merely looking at sizes and measurements isn't doing either team justice, Wolford said. The answer won't come until 2 p.m. Saturday, and the challenge is one Wolford is looking forward to watching.
"I like physical football," he said. "We talk about being physical all the time, and I think this is a really good test to see how physical we are."
The "test" is one not many FCS teams have passed over the years.
YSU is 0-5 against the Big Ten all time (losing twice to Ohio State, twice to Penn State and once to the Spartans), and Missouri Valley Conference teams are 2-42 versus the Big Ten overall. But there have been plenty of close battles, including several this year, and 10 FCS schools have already registered victories over FBS teams in 2013.
Furthermore, the Penguins trailed just 14-6 in the third quarter of their 28-6 loss to Michigan State in 2011. YSU won its lone matchup with an FBS school last year, beating Pitt, 31-17. So, there's certainly a chance.
"Getting the win against Pitt last year, it definitely gave us confidence," YSU senior defensive lineman D.J. Moss said. "It lets us know we can play with teams of that caliber."
Don't expect Michigan State (2-0), which plays Notre Dame next week, to overlook the Penguins (2-0). Spartans coach Mark Dantonio was YSU's defensive coordinator for five years (1986-90) under former coach Jim Tressel. Mike Tressel, Jim's nephew, is Michigan State's linebackers and special teams coach. MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, the son of former YSU coach Bill Narduzzi, played one season for the Penguins in 1986 before transferring. And finally, co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Jim Bollman was a YSU assistant from 1986-90.
Needless to say, they know the tradition at Youngstown State.
"I have a great affinity for the city of Youngstown," Dantonio said. "Excellent coaching staff. Mark Mangino is on that staff. Joe Tresey is defensive coordinator, as well. Head coach has been there in place, doing a tremendous job. Shane Montgomery, former head coach as well.
"They play with great effort, great toughness. Out of the gate last year, they beat Pitt. They started out 4-0. This year they've started out very successful."
The meeting could be one of the last between such schools. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany wants Big Ten teams to drop FCS schools from their schedules in the future because he said it's like a "high school team playing against a JV team." Wolford and several players expressed disappointment if such contests came to an end. Wolford talked about how those big games are a vital recruiting tool for FCS schools and said taking them away would be even devastating to the players.
The Penguins play at Illinois next season and are close to finishing a contract with Pitt for 2015.
"That's a great experience for a kid who grew up a Steelers fan his whole life to get a chance to play at Heinz Field," Wolford said. "If you're not good enough to go to Pitt, it's nice to at least be able to say you got a chance to go over there and play.
"It's opportunities for young people to have experiences they wouldn't normally get," he added. "These kids don't get a chance to play in front of 90,000 or 100,000 people and go against coaches you see on ESPN all the time."
They have a chance on Saturday.