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Youngstown State Identity test
Penguins will find out a lot about themselves Saturday
The first two weeks of the season have done little in the way of establishing the identity of the Youngstown State football team.
The Penguins played a spirited game against Michigan State in their opener, moving the ball well at times against the Spartans, but fell 28-6 on Sept. 2.
YSU totally overwhelmed outmanned Valparaiso - a non-scholarship Football Championship Subdivision program - in its home opener, establishing several school records in a 77-13 rout last week.
A better gauge of the Penguins’ progress under second-year coach Eric Wolford could come Saturday when YSU hosts Missouri Valley Football Conference rival Illinois State. The kickoff is set for 4 p.m. at Stambaugh Stadium.
“We’ll find out a little bit this Saturday,” Wolford said.
Wolford and the Penguins coaching staff have stressed the importance of MVFC games in trying to turn around a program that once was the envy of what used to be known as Division I-AA.
“The excitement level is pretty good,” YSU senior defensive end Obinna Ekweremuba said. “We believe in our coaches. They’ve laid out the plays. We just have to go out and execute.”
There is also the extra motivation of what happened on Nov. 6 last season in Normal, Ill. YSU trailed, 35-17, late in the third quarter, but stormed back and took a 39-35 lead with 26.9 seconds to play on a 7-yard touchdown run by Penguins quarterback Kurt Hess.
But Illinois State staged an improbable rally of its own - moving 63 yards on just three plays - and won the game on a 40-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matt Brown to wide receiver Tyrone Walker with 0.7 seconds to play.
It was perhaps YSU’s most demoralizing defeat in a 3-8 season in which the Penguins had the lead at some point in all 11 games.
Many of those leads slipped away amid breakdowns in YSU’s pass defense.
Senior Josh Lee, who made his first career start at cornerback against Valparaiso, said the Penguins have improved in that area.
“On defense, we feel secure at the spots we have,” he said. “We’re staying strong in our secondary positions.”
Wolford agrees that his team’s defense is better after an influx of new players and some position changes.
“Defensively, I think we’ve made some progress,” he said. “I still get concerned, probably, a little bit about our youth. We dont’t have a lot of experienced returning players there.
“When I look at their offense, one of the stats they have is how many games played each player has. I see a whole bunch of guys for them who have played in double-digits and in the 20s and 30s, and we’ve got some guys (on defense) who have just played two games.
“It will be interesting to watch how that unfolds.”
Brown and Walker, both juniors, are among those experienced and dangerous players. The Redbirds quarterback was 29-of-37 for 390 yards and five touchdowns. Walker caught nine passes for 206 yards. In addition to the game-winning score, he also caught touchdown passes of 44 and 45 yards.
“They come in with a very strong offense,” Wolford said. “The quarterback’s probably as good as anyone in the league, the receivers are as good as anyone in the league, a good offensive line, two great running backs. … They’ll be a real good challenge for our defense.”
But as successful as Brown was in shredding YSU’s secondary, the Penguins’ offense was even more productive against the Redbirds.
YSU racked up 523 yards - including tailback Jamaine Cook’s 213 rushing yards - and 33 first downs. The Penguins converted 12 of 20 third-down situations and controlled the ball for more than 35 minutes.
Cook ran for two touchdowns and caught a scoring pass from Hess, who passed for 250 yards and three scores.
YSU did virtually everything, in fact, but win the game.
“The key for us is to get out early and start quick,” Hess said. “Last year’s game - I was watching it this morning - we got off to a slow start and had to play catch up the whole second half.”
By ED PUSKAS, Tribune Chronicle