YSU Hosts NEC Champs, Duquesne Thursday Night
By Dan Hiner
The Youngstown State University football team hasn’t lost a home opener since 1995. Most of its opponents have been lesser competition, but this year’s season opener will be different.
YSU will kick off its season opener on Thursday at Stambaugh Stadium against Duquesne University.
Duquesne finished last season with an 8-4 (5-1 in the Northeast Conference) record, won its third conference title and advanced to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for the first time in program history — losing 52-49 to the College of William and Mary.
The Penguins are trying to build off last year’s 5-6 season (3-5 in the Missouri Valley Conference), and with head coach Bo Pelini and his staff entering their second season, the team is confident the program will take a step forward in 2016.
The Dukes are led by quarterback Dillon Buechel who threw for 2871 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2015. Buechel is one of the best quarterbacks in program history. He’s second in Duquesne history in completions, pass attempts, completion percentage and yards. He’s also fourth in Dukes’ history with 52 career touchdowns.
The Penguins will rely on a strong defense in 2016. YSU finished seventh in total defense and first in passing yards allowed last year. Last season’s defense allowed 116.7 passing yards per game, the fewest allowed per game since 1975.
The strength of the defense will be on the defensive line. Two key players are returning on the D-line, defensive ends Avery Moss and All-American Derek Rivers. The Penguins lost both starting defensive tackles, but Rivers says the new talent will be able to step up and contribute early in the season.
“What I’m seeing from these younger guys … Savon Smith has a great motor — very good strength, Lamont Ragland has great speed and is very athletic, Cody [Squiric] can play with anybody,” Rivers said. “He’s a big guy and could hold that point of attack. And Donald Mesier is actually a really good pass rusher, you wouldn’t think so just by looking at him, but he’s really good. We’re still working on them, but they’re all showing flashes of good talent this season coming up.”
There are still several question marks for YSU on the offensive side of the ball. Pelini has yet to officially name a starting quarterback and currently has three quarterbacks, Hunter Wells, Ricky Davis and Trent Hosick, listed as the first-string quarterbacks on the team’s depth chart.
One other key on the offensive end will be the play of the offensive line. Last season the offensive line was “a revolving door” according to Pelini. This year, the Penguins have both starting offensive tackles returning, left guard Brock Eisenhuth is returning from an injury that ended his 2015 season and two new starters in Gavin Wiggins and Vitas Hrynkiewicz.
Wiggins, now a sophomore, started the final four games of the season last year after injuries decimated the offensive line. Wiggins started at both left and right guard last season but will start at right guard on Thursday.
Hrynkiewicz is a junior college transfer from Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas. Hrynkiewicz was a Honorable-Mention Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference recipient at center.
“They’re just hard workers,” left tackle Justin Spencer said. “They bought into the system, both of them. They’re gonna be a huge part for us. They’re big, physical guys. They love to hit people, so they’ll fit right in.”
This will be the first Thursday night game for the Penguins since YSU played Dayton in 2013. Pelini said he’s been a part of several Thursday night games, but they date back to his time coaching in the Southeastern Conference.
“It doesn’t matter to me. It’s a Thursday, but we treat it like a Saturday,” Pelini said. “Hopefully, it will be good for our fans. I think it’s supposed to be a nice night. It’s supposed to be a really good day. You won’t have as much competition for people [and seating]. Hopefully, people are excited to come out and see this team play.”