Even the Penguins couldn’t help but laugh at themselves about the infamous “butt punt” play — currently an Internet sensation that garnered national media attention — which occurred during Saturday’s loss at the University of Illinois.
“The jokes came later on after the game,” wide receiver Jelani Berassa admitted in Tuesday’s press conference.
The Youngstown State University miscue, which is expected to air during SportsCenter’s weekly Friday segment of Not Top 10 Plays, happened when Penguins punter Joey Cejudo attempted to run for a first down on 4th and, 1 before punting the ball directly off the backside of lineman Jacob Wood.
Although comical, the play happened with YSU protecting a 9-7 lead late in the third quarter and, in turn, helped set the stage for the Fighting Illini’s 28-17 comeback victory.
“Yeah, we joked with him a little bit, but that was a negative play,” Berassa said. “That was a mistake by him. But we all got it corrected at practice.”
With plays like the butt punt as well as missed red-zone opportunities, the Penguins — who had more total yards and first downs than UI — returned from Champaign feeling like they whiffed on their chance at a Week 1 upset victory.
“Offensively, we moved the ball pretty well and the defense played lights out,” Berassa said. “So we’ll correct all the mistakes we made on special teams.
“We did some good things and bad things. The bad things can all be corrected and the good things we’ll try to capitalize on for the rest of the season.”
Head coach Eric Wolford said the biggest negative of the game was YSU’s inability to score touchdowns.
The Penguins ventured deep into Illini territory three times in the first three quarters. However, they settled for a Cejudo field goal each time.
“We had some missed opportunities,” Wolford said. “There were several times in the red zone that we could have had touchdowns, but we didn’t execute and get that done. … We hope we now recognize the importance of executing in those times.”
YSU finally found the end zone early in the fourth quarter on a 5-yard rush by Martin Ruiz — set up by a 61-yard catch and run from Dante Nania to Andrew Williams. It was the longest pass of the day for first-time starter Nania, who finished 11 for 24 for 177 yards while also rushing for 46 yards.
“I think he did well,” Berassa said of his quarterback. “He ran the ball a lot — the quarterback draw was working for us — and when he threw the ball, he threw it pretty well. He can only get better.”
Also in their debut game, the reshaped YSU defense had plenty of positives in their first test of the season.
Although the Fighting Illini offense finally figured things out with a 21-point fourth quarter — albeit set-up by YSU offensive and special team miscues — the Penguins’ defense forced three UI fumbles and dominated through the first three quarters.
“I think we played real well,” linebacker Jaylin Kelly said. “We matched up physically with a Big Ten team and it gave us confidence.
“Now we get to show off our talents to the home crowd. There’s some new faces they haven’t seen yet and we’re ready.”
The Penguins home opener is set for 4 p.m. on Saturday at Stambaugh Stadium against Duquesne University. The Dukes (0-1) nearly upset the University at Buffalo last week. Like YSU, they surrendered an early fourth-quarter lead before falling, 38-28.
“I’m sure they’re a good team,” Berassa said. “They went out and played Buffalo pretty tough, so we expect they’ll play us hard too. We’re going to prepare for them just like how we do every week.”
YSU beat Duquesne, 59-17, last season on Sept. 21. So while the Penguins know what they’ll be going against on Saturday — keep an eye out for Dukes QB Dillon Buechel — Wolford first wants to see the Penguins improve on last week’s miscues and put the butt punt in the past.
“We have to find a way to get seven instead of kicking field goals,” he said. “I think our kids are looking forward to turning the page and moving forward.”