What a way to go out!
And, I’m talking about me, not Youngstown State football coach Jon Heacock.
Since I’ll be retiring at the end of this year, Saturday’s YSU-North Dakota State football game was the final one that I’ll cover as a full-time sports writer for The Vindicator. If I could have envisioned a final game I couldn’t have done a better job than the Penguins’ outstanding, come-from-behind 39-35 victory over the Bison in Fargo, N.D.
It just might have been one of the most exciting games that I’ve covered in my 30 years as a writer here and it brought a final bright spot to an otherwise disappointing season for the Penguins.
Had the Penguins played all season long as they did in the final two games this year, they might still be practicing this week in preparation for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs instead of trying to figure out where they will be shopping on Black Friday.
The victory gave the Penguins a final 6-5 record and a 4-4 mark in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, but more importantly it averted a fourth losing season for Heacock.
For senior quarterback Brandon Summers it was a great ending to what was a disappointing year for the talented athlete. Those final two touchdown drives — which brought the Penguins back from what looked like a sure defeat to an exciting victory — will be long remembered by the Southfield, Mich., native.
Summers didn’t even start his final game. That honor went to sophomore backup quarterback Marc Kanetsky, a Hubbard native who made his first career start and was impressive in his first drive, taking the Penguins to the end zone with a perfect touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Donald Jones.
Kanetsky got the start because Summers had been banged up all week with a sore shoulder and arm sustained in the win over Illinois State. His practice time last week was limited.
When Kanetsky struggled somewhat after that first drive Summers came on in the second quarter and took over the offense. He finished 23-of-34 passing for 259 yards and three touchdowns in three quarters and 14 of those pass completions came on his final two drives in the final eight minutes of the contest to give the Penguins the win.
Summers, despite an overall poor season, still set a school record for pass completions in a single season with 219, breaking the old record of 215 set by Trenton Lykes in 1987.
He had the help of a trio of outstanding receivers led by Jones, who also set a YSU record for pass receptions in a single season with 77, breaking the record set in 1979 by Jimmy “The Flea” Ferranti of 75.
Junior Dominique Barnes, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass, finished the year with 60 receptions and eight touchdowns, while senior Aaron Pitts finished with 33 catches and two TDs.
Once again the Penguins’ rushing game was held in check, but once they fell behind there was very little running the ball and the Penguins finished with just 67 yards on 33 rushing attempts.
The YSU defense, which has been one of the strong points throughout most of the season, didn’t have one of its better games against the Bison, allowing 470 total yards, including 232 yards rushing. The Penguins had difficulty handling North Dakota State’s standout rusher, Pat Paschall, who finished with 140 yards on seven carries and three touchdowns.
Paschall is the top rusher in the FCS this season.
If the game wasn’t enough for me there was also my first trip to the Bison’s fantastic Fargodome, one of the finest sports facilities in all of FCS football.
The facility, built in 1993 at a cost of just over $43 million, is really something to see.
Once inside you get the feeling that you are in a huge theater rather than a football stadium and the building will hold over 19,000 fans. There were just over 14,000 on Saturday and the Bison still averaged over 17,000 to support a team that won only one home game this year.
Although I envisioned a lot more this season from the Penguins, it was still a treat to see them finish the year the way that I expected them to play all season long.
XPete Mollica covers YSU athletics for The Vindicator. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.