By Chris McBride
The Youngstown State University football team (5-5, 3-4 in Missouri Valley Football Conference) will take on Missouri State University (3-7, 2-5 in MVFC) in its final home game of the year. This followed a successful series of road games culminating in a 28-20 win for YSU against Southern Illinois University (4-6 , 2-5 in MVFC.)
Against the Salukis, junior defensive back Justus Reed sealed the win after forcing a sack-fumble on SIU quarterback Matt DeSomer and converted it into a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. On the ensuing drive the Penguins defense ended any hopes for a comeback to further solidify the game.
Early on YSU overcame a 7-0 deficit early beginning when QB Hunter Wells, who dealt with nagging injuries all year connected with receiver Damoun Patterson on one of two touchdown passes between the duo. One of those passes included a 14-yard pass with 27 seconds left, making the game 14-7 before halftime.
“It was definitely good to get back in the flow of the game. The game speed was a little faster. I felt like after that first drive I was in, I calmed down a little bit. I was picking up where I left off,” Wells said.
An SIU field goal late in the third quarter closed the gap before Tevin McCaster ran in a touchdown on fourth-and-goal to further the Penguins’ lead. From there, the Salukis fought their way back to get the game within one point by the end of the fourth before ultimately coming up short.
YSU was able to overcome four turnovers on the game.
The game was not only a fitting way to end the final road trip, it was also a passing of the torch to newbies such as cornerback D.J. Smalls who got his first start.
Head Coach Bo Pelini praised him as being the “player of the game.”
“I’ve been through a lot to get there; God put me through a lot of situations and it was just perfect timing,” Smalls said. “At first I didn’t see it as that, but over time I just had to realize.”
For its final game in the Ice Castle the Penguins will defend the castle against MSU, a team that has won two of three meetings in Stambaugh Stadium against YSU.
Approaching the game, Pelini expects a tough game against MSU, a team he’s seeing rapid improvement in.
“Their offense is putting up some numbers and moving the ball and defensively they’ve improved, they’re one of the more improved football teams out there,” Pelini said.
Last time these teams met in 2016, YSU secured a comfortable 65-20 win on the road.
It was a game in which the Penguins controlled from the start, overpowering the Bears enough to gain a 34-10 lead by halftime. YSU finished the game with 747 offensive yards and 572 yards on the ground setting school records. The Penguins hold the season series advantage with a 12-5 record.
Pelini stressed this as being a game that his players will have to be on their toes for.
Twenty seniors will bear the Y on their chest as they prepare to take what may be their last walk through the tunnel. One of those players, left tackle Justin Spencer, has been a staple on the offensive line having started 50 straight games for the Penguins.
Pelini described Spencer as being a “pretty special guy” and a “good player.”
“He’s had some injuries, some nagging things, but he has fought through it and he fights through it to find a way,” Pelini said. “I give him a lot of credit, he’s a tough kid really committed to the team and a really good leader, an example to all the young guys.”
With the playoffs looking doubtful, this could potentially be his final game. Wells summed up his thoughts by looking back on the career.
“It’s crazy thinking that four years went by as fast as it did,” Wells said. “It feels like the other day I was walking in as a freshman, but all good things come to an end.”
As Pelini’s saying goes, it’s the “next man up” for this YSU team as the seniors hand the keys down to the next group of men. Players like Smalls hope to carry the mantle in their wake, having said he hopes to send them away with a win in their final game.
To these next round of players and future Penguins, Wells left some parting words.
“At any time anything can happen and you gotta be ready to go, so if you’re a two or a three, you have to be preparing yourself to be a starter,” Wells said.
These seniors will have a lot to look back on, including last year’s national championship game.
The Penguins are set to cap off its season at 12 p.m. in Stambaugh Stadium against MSU.