Penguins lose 21-point lead to fall to Illinois State

Penguins lose 21-point lead to fall to Illinois State

By Joe Scalzo

Normal, Ill.

At halftime of Saturday’s game against Youngstown State, Illinois State coach Brock Spack held up his play sheet and said, “Nothing on this card is going to change this game. Just the guys in the red jerseys.”

Considering what happened over the next 30 minutes, the Penguins could use the same speech this morning.

While there is competition for the most confounding loss in Eric Wolford’s three seasons, YSU made a strong case for the top spot Saturday, coughing up a 21-point lead en route to a 35-28 defeat at Hancock Stadium.

It’s believed to be YSU’s biggest collapse since blowing a 24-point lead to Delaware in 1979.

“We’re hurt,” YSU quarterback Kurt Hess said. “We have to stay together now more than ever because this is as low as it’s going to get for us, I think.”

The Penguins scored on their first four possessions to take a 28-7 lead with 9:41 left in the second quarter. They went scoreless the rest of the way despite not committing a turnover. Spack said his staff then switched to a completely different defensive philosophy, switching up his fronts and his schemes to get pressure on Hess and stuff YSU’s run game.

“It’s something we didn’t prepare for all week but we have to be able to adjust,” said Hess. “That’s a defensive scheme we’ve seen before. We’ve done a good job against it.”

Illinois State scored the game-winner on a 1-yard sneak by quarterback Matt Brown with 2:44 left but it looked like YSU would rally in the final minutes. After a touchback put the Penguins at their own 25, they picked up 49 yards over the next four plays to set up a first down at the Redbirds’ 26.

Hess then threw three straight completions — two on catchable balls, the other on a throwaway — before getting crushed up the middle on fourth down by defensive lineman Colton Underwood, who finished with 31/2 tackles for loss.

“That’s the fourth quarter, that’s what we talk about all the time — winning the fourth quarter,” Hess said. “When we don’t win the fourth quarter, this is what happens.”

YSU’s defense had its moments — Aronde Stanton recovered a fumble at the Illinois State 41 midway through the fourth — but it wasn’t a winning performance. Illinois State was 10 of 15 on third down, gained 378 total yards and scored 21 points in the second half.

Add in a special teams unit that didn’t make a single memorable play and, as Wolford said afterward, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

“We’ll take a step back and look at exactly what we’re asking our kids to do and dissect it and get a game plan for next week and come out and get ready to play our next game,” Wolford said. “We’re not going to make any excuses. The plays are there. We have to execute.”

If they don’t, a once-promising season will continue to slip away.

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