YSU football year in review
By Joe Scalzo
On Dec. 15, 2009, the day his hiring was announced, YSU football coach Eric Wolford delivered this message: “I think you can, sometimes, learn more from losing because you have to dissect why you’re losing. Those who win don’t necessarily have to struggle or pick themselves off the floor and walk into a meeting room to coach kids and make them believe.”
Almost a year later, the same message applies. The Penguins finished 3-8 overall and 1-7 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference — their worst record since 1995. But YSU looked better in person than on paper, losing the seven conference games by a mere 39 points.
The next few months will be about looking ahead. But, first, here’s a look back.
Player of the year
Sophomore RB Jamaine Cook.
Cook’s statistics were good — he carried 241 times for 1,276 yards and 11 TDs — but he’s someone you had to watch in every game to really appreciate. Nobody was better at getting 4 yards when only 3 were there. He was a magician.
He also epitomized what Wolford was looking for in a player — someone who made the most of his talent and viewed competition as a way to make himself better. He distinguished himself even while playing YSU’s deepest and most talented position.
Runner-up: Senior WR Dominique Barnes. He started the spring in Wolford’s doghouse and worked his way into a captain spot by the end of August. He was the team’s biggest playmaker and — by far — its most consistent receiver. His graduation will leave a huge hole at his position.
Newcomer of the year
Redshirt freshman QB Kurt Hess.
Easy choice. Hess set a freshman record by throwing for 2,117 yards and surpassed expectations with his poise, his decision-making and his development. YSU’s coaches brought in Purdue transfer Najee Tyler to push him this summer and Hess responded, quickly grabbing hold of the starting spot and playing every meaninful snap this season. He had two bad games — against Missouri State and in the finale against Indiana State — but freshmen usually do. Because he’s more of a distributor than a playmaker, Hess will benefit if Wolford can suround him with more talent the next few years.
Runner-up: Junior DT Andrew Johnson. The Bowling Green transfer didn’t have incredible stats — defensive tackles normally don’t — but he was a solid, steady presence for a unit that was pretty good against the run.
Play of the year
Barnes’ 80-yard touchdown reception against Penn State. It gave YSU its first touchdown against a BCS program since it started playing money games a few years ago and proved the Penguins weren’t going to back down against superior opponents, a theme they continued all year.
Alas, it also showed they weren’t going to beat them, either, another theme they continued.
Highlight of the year
The Sept. 25 win over Southern Illinois. The victory snapped the Salukis’ 14-game conference winning streak and gave the Penguins a 3-1 record.
Unfortunately, it proved to be a mirage. YSU lost the next seven games.
Lowlight of the year
The Nov. 6 loss to Illinois State. After coming back from 18 points down, the Penguins seemed poised to finally win a game after Hess’s TD run gave them a 39-35 lead with 27 seconds left. But a 40-yard TD pass with less than one second left cost YSU a win and provided the most gut-wrenching loss in a season filled with them.
The good: Where to start? First, the unit set a school record by averaging 412 yards per game despite starting eight first-timers, including a freshman quarterback. It averaged 31.3 points per game. It tied the school record for points in a game (63) against Central Connecticut State and tied a school record for first downs in a game (33) against Illinois State. It piled up 500 yards in a game three times — a school record — and 499 against North Dakota State.
The running backs, led by Cook and true freshman Adaris Bellamy, were excellent, helping the Penguins finish second in the conference with 215 rushing yards per game. The line played better than Wolford will ever admit, overcoming the loss of tackle D.J. Main over the final few weeks.
The bad: A lack of explosiveness. Outside of Cook and Barnes, there was no one who scared opposing defensive coordinators and YSU usually had to put together long drives, rather than long plays, to score. The Penguins also didn’t establish a receiving threat at tight end.
The ugly: Barnes is graduating. Although junior Ely Ducatel emerged a solid No. 2 receiver, he’s pretty much reached his ceiling. The team’s other receivers — Juilian Harrell, Kevin Watts, Josh Lee and Pat White — all underperformed. The Penguins either need to develop a No. 1 receiver or recruit one over the next few months.
Overall grade: A-minus.
Prognosis: Good. There are a few holes to fill on the offensive line and the team could use a few game-breakers, but Hess, Cook and Bellamy will be back. Should be a strength next fall.
The good: The unit was OK against the run. Sophomore DE Obinna Ekweremuba went from being a project to a player to watch. Junior LB John Sasson proved to be a tackling machine. CB Brandian Ross and DT Torrance Nicholson behaved like senior captains, both on the field and off.
The bad: Just about everything else. Too many players either disappeared or wore down as the game went on. There were too many penalties, too many missed tackles and too little depth behind the starters. The blitz-heavy scheme didn’t work because it often didn’t result in much pressure and left a suspect secondary even more vulnerable. YSU gave up 31.5 points and 411 yards per game, numbers that got worse during conference play. Only Illinois State’s defense was worse in the MVFC this year.
The ugly: The secondary. Senior safety Andre Elliott’s injury in the second conference game was a killer, forcing YSU to play newcomers Will Shaw and Donald D’Alesio at the same time, rather than rotating them (an approach that had been successful early in the year). Both struggled in coverage, as did several others, including freshman CB Jamarious Boatwright, who struggled when filling in for injured CB Randy Louis. And as anyone who watched this year’s games knows, this unit got worse as the game wore on.
Overall grade: D.
Prognosis: Shaky. The defense loses its two best players to graduation and needs a huge influx of talent. The staff plans to move Shaw to linebacker and LB David Rach to defensive end, which will improve the unit’s speed, but that’s just the beginning. Last year’s leading tackler, LB Taylor Hill, is expected to return after missing this year with academic issues but for the Penguins to be a playoff team, they need a couple guys who scare opposing teams. Right now, no one does.
SPECIAL TEAMS ANALYSIS
The good: After an iffy summer, freshman punter Nick Liste was terrific, posting the third-highest average in school history at 41.4 yards per kick. Senior kicker Stephen Blose made his last 11 field goals — the second-longest streak in YSU history — and made 38 of 40 extra points. Linebackers Thomas Sprague and Mark Brandenstein made big hits in coverage.
The bad: Outside of Dominique Barnes’ punt return against Butler, the return units were very average. Kicker Jake Smith struggled with kickoffs in the middle of the year, although he improved as the season went on. YSU had two punts blocked.
The ugly: The kick coverage, particularly late in the game, was bad and may have cost YSU victories against North Dakota State and Northern Iowa.
Overall grade: C-plus.
Prognosis: Pretty good. Smith needs to show he can be a consistent kicker and the Penguins need a game-breaker in the return game but this unit was better than the 2009 version and returns several key players.
The good: Wolford brought new energy into a program that had stagnated the past few years under Jon Heacock. He upped the intensity, made players more accountable and took steps to improve the team’s talent. The staff also kept the team together as the losses mounted. Wolford’s outgoing personality also helped him better communicate his message with the media and the community — a vital role for a head coach.
The bad: While his straight-shooting approach was appreciated, Wolford spent too much time bemoaning his lack of talent, particularly since he never missed an opportunity to praise his coaching staff. Yes, Heacock’s staff didn’t leave him with a championship roster, but many of Wolford’s recruits/transfers struggled, too. A little more humility would be nice. Wolford also can get a little too carried away with his rhetoric, most notably when he compared losing players to getting chemotherapy or when he talked about how disrespect can get people killed in some parts of the world. (That disrespect, incidentally, was over being picked seventh in the league’s preseason poll. YSU finished ninth.)
The ugly: No matter how little talent the defense had, there’s no excuse for losing so many games in the final seconds. Some of that is on the coaches. And while one play doesn’t usually cost you a game, what in the world were they thinking on the last play of the Illinois State game?
Overall grade: B.
Prognosis: Good. While offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery will surely get some interest from Division I schools — and deservedly so — Wolford said he expects to keep his staff intact. And while it would have been nice to get a few more wins, it’s difficult to argue that the Penguins underachieved competitively. This offseason will be crucial for YSU. Wolford has a reputation as a top recruiter, so this is his time to shine.