Youngstown State made things a lot tougher for itself. The Penguins' 31-23 loss to Northern Iowa on Saturday means another loss would put them into the same situation they found themselves in a year ago.
YSU controlled its own destiny and had the Gateway championship and the automatic bid in its back pocket.
Now the Penguins must battle just to survive.
The loss hasn't eliminated YSU from anything, it just makes things that much tougher.
Saturday, the Penguins didn't play well -- on the other hand, neither did Northern Iowa -- but the Panthers made fewer mistakes and came out with the win.
Now YSU must go to Normal, Ill., Saturday, to take on perhaps the best team in the Gateway Conference, Illinois State.
The Redbirds defeated Western Illinois on the road Saturday, 27-14, and are 6-1 overall and 3-0 in the Gateway.
Obviously, the Penguins have to play much better than they did against Northern Iowa. With five turnovers, YSU is not going to beat anybody, but penalties also hurt the Penguins.
They were flagged for eight penalties for 60 yards, and several were for false starts which shouldn't be occurring this late in the season.
TD nullified by penaltyspoiled chance to tie
The ineligible-receiver call that nullified a late YSU touchdown was very critical because the Penguins still had a chance to tie the score and send the game into overtime.
A championship-caliber team doesn't make those kinds of mistakes, and the Penguins can't afford to keep making them if they have any hopes of making the playoffs.
Then there's this thing with Northern Iowa. The Penguins just can't seem to beat the Panthers. Saturday marked the sixth straight win by UNI against the Penguins. Jon Heacock has never beaten them since he's been head coach and Mark Farley has never lost to YSU since he's been at UNI.
You can understand losing to the Panthers in Cedar Falls, Iowa, at the UNI-Dome. It's a whole different atmosphere in the dome and nobody ever has had great success against the Panthers there.
But the Penguins are just 3-7 against the Panthers at Stambaugh Stadium, and have won just once in the last seven games played in Youngstown.
Now that's not just Jon Heacock, that includes Jim Tressel also. Tressel had just one win against the Panthers at home and one in the dome.
Defense needs help;allows too many yards
The Penguins appear to have some big problems on defense.
They just can't stop anybody consistently.
The Panthers moved the ball both on the ground and through the air in the first half almost at will. Quarterback Eric Sanders completed his first 10 passes, and his 11th was dropped by a wide open receiver. Most of Sanders' receivers were wide open and he had more than ample time to throw all game.
The Penguins did play somewhat better in the second half, getting more pressure on Sanders that helped to force his lone interception.
But the fact still remains: The Penguins have allowed 888 yards in their last two games and one of those was a victory.
Illinois State is every bit as good as Northern Iowa, if not better, and the final two games against Southern Illinois at home and at Western Kentucky are no breathers either.
YSU senior tailback Marcus Mason, who had his sixth 100-plus yard game of the season Saturday with 172 yards on 33 carries and three touchdowns, was upset after Saturday's loss.
"It's frustrating because we know we didn't play our best football," Mason said.
With his efforts on Saturday Mason went over 1,000 yards on the season. He now has 1,071 yards and 15 touchdowns this year, both marks being ranked nationally in Division I-AA.
But even Mason knows that the next three weeks are going to be the toughest of the season for the Penguins.
Pete Mollica covers YSU athletics for The Vindicator. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.