By Dan Hiner
Following last week’s loss to Southern Illinois University, the Youngstown State University football team’s hopes of making the playoffs are bordering on slim to none.
YSU (3-4, 1-3 Missouri Valley Football Conference) had an opportunity to tie the game in overtime, but instead of running a conventional play, the Penguins opted for a halfback pass by running back Jody Webb to a tight end. The pass fell incomplete and the Penguins lost 38-31.
Head coach Bo Pelini said after the game, the pass was called by offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery, but he takes full responsibility for the play being run.
“I let him make the call. It’s one that we’d want back obviously,” Pelini said. “I don’t think we executed it the way we wanted to execute it, but at the end of the day, it’s on me. No one else is responsible for that call but me.”
There was one positive to come from the loss on Saturday. Quarterback Hunter Wells, whose confidence was questioned heading into the game following back-to-back loses, threw for 324 yards and three touchdowns. Wells did throw five interceptions in four games, but he rebounded to complete 9-12 passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns.
“I like the way Hunter [Wells] responded, I really do. Obviously, I didn’t like the play,” Pelini said. “He kinda turned and threw it before he really scanned the field and he just made a bad decision, but I do like the way he responded. He pointed the thumb at himself, he was mad at himself, but he didn’t wallow in it. He went on and I thought he played a really good football game the rest of the way. That’s a sign of maturity, that’s a sign of a guy who’s growing into that position, the leadership and the things that are necessary for him to play well.”
Now #25 YSU will travel to Western Illinois University (3-4, 3-1 Missouri Valley Football Conference) in an attempt to snap a three-game losing streak.
Western Illinois is one of the top passing attacks in the country. Leathernecks quarterback Trenton Norvell is 18th in the nation with 1,784 passing yards. Norvell is third all-time in Western Illinois history with 6,815 passing yards.
The Penguins will have to contend with one of the top receivers in the conference. Lance Lenoir is coming into the game with 47 receptions for 650 yards and three touchdowns. Lenoir is considered one of the top receivers in Western Illinois history. Lenoir is the Leathernecks’ all-time leader in career receptions (161) and 100-yard receiving games (10).
YSU will need to try to contain Western Illinois running back Nikko Watson. Going into the game, Watson has amassed 644 rushing yards on 133 carries and seven touchdowns. Watson is a power back, very similar to Illinois State University’s Marshaun Coprich. The Penguins gave up 131 yards to Coprich in their game three weeks ago.
“I think they’re a very balanced team. I know offensively they [have] a couple power backs, a couple change-of-pace backs,” Pelini said. “They’re capable of running the football with very good skill at the wide receiver position. They’ll chuck the ball down the field. They’ve got as good a wide out, or maybe the best wide out that we’ve faced all year. They have a good group of receivers that can really get down the field and they combine that with a little bit of a power run game. Their one back is about 250 [pounds] — so he’s a good player.
Western Illinois’ secondary is one of the most aggressive in the nation. The Leathernecks are tied for 18th in the nation with nine interceptions this season.
“I think they do a real good job on defense. I think they’re really well coached, they’re physical. I think they have a really good set of linebackers,” Pelini said. “They’re not real complicated. They’ll give you some different things every now and then. I think they execute very well — so I think they’re a balanced football team.”
Pelini said “we need to play well” against Western Illinois to come back to Youngstown with a win. He said the team would need to focus on the little things and mentally get the team ready to put their season on the line.
“We need to improve us, we need to fix us, we need to execute our plan and do it with more physicality, better effort, more consistent effort and the things necessary to allow us to play good,” Pelini said. “If that happens, if we take care of us first and not just play smarter mentally but physically lay it on the line, I think we’ll get the result we want. But that has to happen and we have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot. The unforced errors that we’re having in different areas — that has to go away. We have to be a more mentally and physically tough football team.”
Pelini said he’s not concerned with any playoff ambitions at this point. Right now he wants to see the players improve and become more fundamentally sound from week to week.
“I’m not worried about the playoffs right now,” Pelini said. “I mean if the playoffs happened right now, then yeah I want that to happen, but what I’m concerned with is making our football team better and doing the things we need to do to give us a chance to make that happen. Right now we’re not giving ourselves the best chance to make that happen. We’re not at that point where we’re doing the things necessary to get on a roll. There’s too many things going on that’s in our control, that we can control, that we’re not doing and that needs to happen first. Do I think that we’re capable of doing that? Absolutely, but something’s got to change.”
Pelini said the team hasn’t taken a step back in the past three games. He said nothing has changed in recent weeks and the team has been playing “inconsistently” the entire season.
“We’ve lost in the past couple weeks, but I think we’ve made some progress. Sometimes things get amplified,” Pelini said. “It’s a work in progress; I’ve been saying that from the start. Since we’ve started at Pitt [University of Pittsburgh], and the next week and the next week — yeah we won some football games along the way. Sometimes things that are there, maybe not there to the naked eye, are things that get amplified when you don’t win a football game. I’ve said we’re not where we want to be yet and when you lose a couple football games, people say you’ve taken a step back. No, we’ve been inconsistent.”
“The culture we’re trying to live by, the standards we’re trying to live by, in this program we have not lived up to that yet. I think there has been some progress in some areas, not enough progress in other areas, maybe some more inconsistency in some other areas. Still trying to find some right combinations and people who are going to give us the best chance to win football games. In some areas, yeah maybe we’ve taken a step back. We’ve grown in some other areas, but we don’t have the level of consistency on an every down, everyday basis that you need to give yourself the best chance to win.”
Defensive end Derek Rivers said the playoffs “started last Saturday” and that the team hasn’t given up on the season. Rivers said the team would have to overcome mental hurdles in order to get back on track this week.
“Physically, I feel like we are the most talented team in the conference. I could say that to anybody,” Rivers said. “It really is a mental thing. Your mental status is way bigger than anything you do physically. Your heart and your effort could beat talent any day of the week in this conference.”
Wide receiver Andrew Williams said to “reminisce on previous games,” and that the team is still confident that they can right the ship heading into the last month of the season.
“You want the team to finish. We want to try to finish and have confidence,” Williams said. “We don’t want anybody to lose confidence. We’re a team … that’s special enough. We fight, we’re brothers and we’re going to fight together — we’re going to hold out together.”