By Joe Scalzo
Youngstown State is treating Saturday’s game at South Dakota State as a playoff game, which is the type of thing that sounds really good when you’re in the midst of a three-game losing streak.
Just one problem.
“We tried telling ourselves the playoffs started last week for us,” said junior linebacker Ali Cheaib. “Now our back is in the corner. Every game is a must-win from here on out.”
While the Penguins (4-3, 1-3 Missouri Valley) could still sneak into the playoffs with a 3-1 finish, the consensus at Tuesday’s press conference was they needed to win the final four games. To do so, YSU must do something it hasn’t done since the Week 3 win over Albany — play well in all three phases of the game.
YSU’s defense did its job in last week’s loss to Southern Illinois — most of SIU’s 38 points were due to four second-half turnovers and a blocked punt — but the Penguins’ once-reliable offense has been held scoreless in the second half of the last three games.
Penguins coach Eric Wolford blamed turnovers for the offense’s struggles, but the problems go deeper. YSU didn’t turn the ball over in the loss to Illinois State but was shut out over the final 40 minutes. And while Wolford felt the kickoff coverage and return teams played well against SIU — an encouraging development — returner Andre Stubbs still fumbled away a return.
“If one phase isn’t clicking, the team is really hurting,” said sophomore safety Donald D’Alesio. “We can’t blame one phase. Everybody can play better than we did last week.”
The Penguins are 21st in this week’s Gridiron Power Index — a key indicator for the playoff committee — and would be a near-lock for a postseason berth if they can win their final four games.
When asked if the season would be a failure if YSU misses the playoffs, Wolford said, “Yes.”
“I expect to make the playoffs, I really do,” he said. “I don’t have any doubt that we control our own destiny.
“We expect to [make it]. That’s never going to change.”