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A step forward, but is it enough?



Published: Mon, November 5, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Youngstown State took a step forward Saturday with an impressive 31-7 victory over Southern Illinois in the Penguins' final Gateway Conference game of the season.

The way that the Penguins (7-2, 5-2 Gateway) won was the impressive thing as they finally balanced an offensive attack. Senior quarterback Jeff Ryan came through with his finest outing of the season.

Ryan accounted for 308 total yards as the Penguins rolled up 507 yards of offense, their second best performance this year. They had 541 against Clarion in September.

Ryan passed for 214 yards, completing 16-of-19 passes and one touchdown and one interception, as the offense totaled 275 yards rushing and 232 passing.

Making mistakes: But they still turned over the football three times and coach Jon Heacock wasn't happy about that.

"It was a good win, especially on the road in the Gateway, but we've got to eliminate the mistakes. The only thing was that we were driving the football well on all three turnovers."

The Penguins don't have a game this week and will spend practice working hard on fundamentals.

"We want to get healthy again and get rejuvenated again," said Heacock. "We have a chance to regroup again this week and decide where we are going to go from here."

Heacock said that he'll give his team a couple of days off as most of the coaching staff is out recruiting this week.

"We're pretty healthy overall right now, but the team is tired," he said. "We'll get back to fundamentals this week and keep working hard."

The Penguins have two games remaining on the schedule, a Nov. 17 home contest with I-AA Elon and the finale at Marshall on Nov. 24.

Unless something really unusual happens the Penguins will finish no better than a tie for second place in the conference and since they've lost to the two teams ahead of them they will be the No. 3 team in the Gateway come playoff time.

A 9-2 season record would probably get the Penguins into the playoffs, but that would mean a victory over Marshall (8-1), which is playing like a Top 25 team of late.

An 8-3 finish would put the Penguins on the bubble with a host of other teams for an at-large playoff berth.

Getting help: The Penguins got some help this past week when Rhode Island and Furman, both ranked ahead of them in the polls, both lost. Furman's loss was to defending national champion Georgia Southern, so most likely they'll remain ahead of the Penguins, who were No. 10 in the Sports Network poll.

Rhode Island, which lost to Maine, a team ranked No. 24 in the poll, could drop below the Penguins, but that would probably mean YSU would move up only a notch to ninth.

Currently there are 20 teams in I-AA that have two losses or less. Of those 20, two teams -- Grambling and Pennsylvania -- don't compete in the playoffs.

The Atlantic 10 Conference could get three teams into the playoffs led by Hofstra and Villanova, while either Rhode Island or Maine could also make it.

The Southern Conference will have Georgia Southern and Furman, but don't count out Appalachian State, even though it has three losses.

The Ohio Valley is another league which could get three teams in the playoffs with Eastern Illinois, Tennessee State and Eastern Kentucky.

The Big Sky and Mid-Eastern probably will have only one team as will the Patriot League, but the Southland Conference could have two or even three.

Whether the NCAA committee will give three spots to the Gateway is yet to be seen, but if the Penguins finish 8-3, they could be doing their Christmas shopping early.

XPete Mollica covers YSU for The Vindicator. Write to him at mollica@vindy.com.




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