Our Towns

With Win Saturday, Penguins Poised to Bounce Back

No one would argue that last season went the way the Youngstown State Penguins football team wanted it to. 

A season-opening loss at home to non-scholarship Butler. Every road game of the season, a loss. Ten straight points given up at home in the fourth quarter to seal a loss against North Dakota State, one of the top teams in the conference. Injuries that kept those Penguins rotating through players and preventing them from finding their footing.

It all added up to a 4-7 record and a second straight season missing the playoffs after a run to the national championship game.

While 2018 didn’t go as planned, it’s provided fuel to this year’s team as the players made their way through summer training camp.

“They’re eager. They’re not happy about how last year finished and so far this year I’ve seen the work ethic, the attitude, the things we’re bringing to the table will give us a chance to correct that,” observes Head Coach Bo Pelini. “Sometimes last year we were our own worst enemy. If we can take care of ourselves and keep getting better, we’ll be fine.”

One of the largest question marks heading into the home opener is how the offense will perform. Last season, YSU ranked 61st among the 126 teams in the Football Championship Subdivision for total offense, averaging 382.3 yards per game. Much of that was buoyed by the running game, which ranked 48th in the nation with 4.26 yards per attempt and 14 rushing touchdowns.

However, the Penguins’ top rusher was then-senior Tevin McCaster, who has since graduated. Looking to replace the 1,000-yard rusher – YSU’s ninth in nine years – is a stable of running backs comprising Joe Alessi, Christian Turner, Braxton Chapman and London Pearson. Of them, only Alessi is a senior.

“Every time we’ve called [Joe’s] number, he’s stepped up. This is his chance. He’s going to get a lot more time, a lot more carries,” Pelini says. “I think he’s going to have a big year. He’s got a great attitude and a great offseason where he’s worked his butt off.”

The upperclassman noticed a similar change in attitude around training camp, which this year began a week early thanks to Youngstown State’s participation in the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff Aug. 24, a week before other college football teams begin their schedules.

“We have to make sure everybody does their job. If everybody does that, we’ll be fine. Last year, we didn’t want it enough. After Game One, people didn’t want to be here. It was disgraceful, really,” Alessi says. “This year, everybody wants to be here and everybody knows what they have to do.”

In the Penguins’ season opener – a 45-22 win over Samford University – Pelini listed fifth-year senior Nathan Mays and sophomore Joe Craycraft on the team’s two-deep depth chart. Mays took the majority of snaps but Craycraft did see playing time.

Backing them up are  sophomore Conor Collins and freshmen Mark Waid and Mitch Davidson. As the lone upperclassman, Mays knows his role includes an element of education for his younger teammates, one he’s comfortable with.

Senior quarterback Nathan Mays started YSU’s season opener Aug. 24.

“I come from a family of teachers and administrators, so I try to be the big brother, the teacher to those young guys,” Mays says. “I try to help them out as much as I can. Any way I can help them get better every day is the main focus right now.”

Last season, Mays played four games – including a start against North Dakota State – and completed half of his 44 pass attempts, including three touchdowns, and was the No. 2 rusher on the team. In his sophomore season, he played eight games, started  five, and made eight touchdowns: four passing and four rushing.

“Nate has experience. He’s played a lot of football and been through the wars, so to speak,” Pelini says. “But Joe Craycraft is pushing him. Mark Waid’s a good football player. He’s a young kid but he’s learning. It’s a good problem to have. It’s good competition to have and it’s making everyone better.”

Whoever starts at quarterback, he’ll have a bevy of targets. While there was no single standout target returning from last year, four seniors on the 2019 Penguins have hauled in their share of passes: Jeremiah Braswell had four TDs and 325 receiving yards last year, Samuel St. Surin had 299 yards, Darius Shackleford had 213 yards and four touchdowns and Kendric Mallory 169 yards and two touchdowns.

Joining the fray will be tight end Miles Joiner, a sophomore who last season was named to the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s All-Newcomer Team. Tied with Braswell for most receiving touchdowns on the team in 2018, he finished the year with 202 receiving yards.

“We were really young mentally, but this year it’s less of a maze and we’re going to be able to play faster and better,” Joiner says. “We understand the game, understand the spacing. We understand what the coaches are saying and are executing on everything we need to do.”

Tight end Miles Joiner was named to the Missouri Valley Football Conference All-Newcomer Team last season.

Helping the offense throughout training camp was the fact that in scrimmages they were facing a tough defense. 

“As a quarterback, everything about the defense stands out,” Mays says. “Specifically, there’s Zaire Jones at safety who transferred from Vanderbilt. He’s been a really motivated and excited guy out there on the field and you can see it in how he plays.”

In 2018, the Penguins defensive unit ranked 40th in the FCS. Within that, they ranked 34th in first-down yards allowed and 53rd in scoring defense, giving up a shade over 27 points per game. All of that came after the team lost two of its best defensive players – Justus Reed and Kyle Hegedus – to leg injuries in training camp that kept them out for the season. Both will be back on the field this year.

“The big thing is that everybody has to be ready,” says defensive tackle Wesley Thompson. “Look at what happened [last year] in the span of the two months before the season started. … Everyone is here for a reason; everyone can play. It’s a matter of making sure they know the plays, know where they need to be.”

In the defensive backfield, Bryce Gibson has seen that, with many players returning, much of the attention turned toward improving communication and sussing out who will be the on-the-field leader of the unit.

 “The communication aspect is the No. 1 thing. We’ve all got to be on the same page. Nobody can be out there doing their own thing or it’ll mess up the whole team,” he says. “Last year, there weren’t any leaders but now we’ve got guys taking control of the defense and we’re all ready to make plays.”

Adds Pelini, “I like our defense. We’re throwing a lot at them and they’re understanding. We have some good competition with our depth that we didn’t have a year ago or really for the last two years.”

What will be key to the season is the opener Aug. 24, he continues. Now in his third season, Gibson has yet to win Game One. After that, YSU hosts three consecutive home games before getting into conference play. If the Penguins can come through its non-conference slate 4-0, it likely means they just need three conference wins to make the playoffs.

And if that happens, “We’re going to go all the way this year, I’m telling you,” Thompson says.

Pictured: A good sign for the 2019 Penguins, says Head Coach Bo Pelini, is that they’re disappointed with last year’s 4-7 record. 

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.