Tom Zetts threw a career-high four interceptions in YSU's 31-23 loss to Northern Iowa.
By PETE MOLLICA
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
YOUNGSTOWN -- Things didn't go well for Youngstown State Saturday, including the final score.
The Penguins committed five turnovers, had eight penalties (one which nullified a touchdown) and several dropped passes in suffering their first Gateway Conference loss, 31-23, to Northern Iowa before 19,321 fans at Stambaugh Stadium.
YSU (6-2, 3-1) also lost at home for the first time in 12 games, since the last time the Panthers were here, in 2004.
Northern Iowa (5-2, 3-0) only capitalized on one of the Penguins turnovers, but still racked up 425 yards on offense.
"You can't turn the ball over five times and expect to beat anyone, let alone a team as good as Northern Iowa," said YSU coach Jon Heacock. "Give them credit, they committed fewer mistakes than we did and they turned it into a win.
"Now we have to get back to what we were doing before this game," Heacock said. "Last year we let one loss turn into two and we can't afford that this year."
The Penguins travel to Illinois State next Saturday. The Redbirds remained unbeaten in the Gateway Saturday with a 27-14 win over Western Illinois.
The Penguins moved the ball, gaining 400 total yards -- 192 rushing and 208 through the air -- but junior quarterback Tom Zetts threw a career-high four interceptions and no touchdowns, and YSU lost a fumble on a punt return that led to Northern Iowa's final touchdown.
YSU had a chance to tie the game in the final minutes, but a 23-yard scoring pass from Zetts to junior tight end Louis Irizarry was negated by an ineligible receiver penalty.
"Too many penalties and too many dropped balls," Heacock said.
One of the drops came at a key moment by usually sure-handed T.J. Peterson in the third quarter.
The Penguins were driving when Zetts hit the senior wide receiver in the hands at the 5, but Peterson couldn't hold on. Two plays later Zetts threw his first interception.
Senior tailback Marcus Mason had another outstanding game for the Penguins, rushing for 172 yards on 33 carries and three touchdowns.
"What I did was nothing, because we lost the game," Mason said. "It all comes down to wins and losses."
Northern Iowa moved the ball at will in the first half, starting from the opening kickoff that Johnny Gray returned 43 yards.
From there the Panthers quickly moved down the field, scoring when quarterback Eric Sanders hit Gray with a 6-yard pass. Sanders was 19-of-27 for 291 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.
The Penguins scored on their first possession, a 28-yard field goal by Brian Palmer, but the Panthers matched that with a 27-yard field goal by Brian Wingert.
Northern Iowa went up 17-3 on the its next series as Sanders and Gray connected on a 15-yard scoring toss. The drive was helped out by a 15-yard penalty against the Penguins for fair catch interference on the YSU punt.
YSU finally hit the end zone on its third series, driving 80 yards with the big play a 19-yard, one-handed catch by Peterson. Mason culminated the drive with a 9-yard run to leave the Penguins behind, 17-10, at halftime.
The Penguins scored on their opening drive of the third quarter. A shovel pass from Zetts to senior Monquantae Gibson for 40 yards gave YSU a first-and-goal at the 1. From there Mason went in to tie the score at 17.
The Panthers then caught YSU sleeping, as Sanders connected for a 70-yard bomb to Gray to regain the lead, 24-17.
Then the interceptions followed. The first came one after Peterson's dropped pass, then after Jim Phelan recovered a UNI fumble at the Panthers 28, the Penguins moved to the 18, but Zetts was intercepted by Chris Parsons in the end zone.
The Penguins got another turnover when Codera Jackson picked off a Sanders pass and returned it 43 yards to the UNI 14, and YSU scored five plays later on a 1-yard run by Mason, but Palmer's extra point attempt was blocked due to a low snap.
YSU got another break when Mychal Savage pounced on a Northern Iowa fumble minutes later at the UNI 44, but three plays later Zetts was again picked off by Parsons.
Then came the fumble.
The YSU defense held the Panthers and forced a punt, but senior Jason Perry fumbled the catch and Dave Schratz recovered for the Panthers at the YSU 18 with just over five minutes remaining.
Two plays later Darian Williams raced 16 yards for the clinching TD.
Still the Penguins had one more shot and Zetts drove them from their 31 to the Panthers' 23. On second down he lofted a pass just over the head of a UNI defender into Irizarry's arms, but the play was negated and two plays later Zetts was intercepted by Dre Dokes at the goal line.