Playoffs starting early for Penguins
YSU looks to end skid
By Joe Scalzo
Youngstown State is guaranteed to play four more games this season.
Today, we’ll find out whether it can play five.
With winnable games looming against South Dakota and Western Illinois, today’s game at South Dakota State will likely either save the Penguins’ playoff hopes or doom them.
“If there’s any time for things to turn around,” said junior linebacker Ali Cheaib, “this is the perfect time.”
It won’t be easy. The Jackrabbits (5-2, 3-1 Missouri Valley) are coming off a 27-6 loss to Northern Iowa that snapped their eight-game winning streak against FCS teams. They’ve won all four meetings with the Penguins since joining the MVFC, although the deficits have narrowed from 33 (in 2008) to 14 (2009) to 10 (2010) to 7 (2011).
Technically, the Penguins can still lose one of their last four games and be playoff-eligible. But with six teams ahead of them in the conference standings, YSU’s coaches and players are treating today’s contest as a first-round playoff game.
“We know we probably can’t afford to lose another game,” said sophomore safety Donald D’Alesio.
South Dakota State’s biggest weakness this season has been turnovers. The Jackrabbits have 18, including 12 interceptions by sophomore quarterback Austin Sumner.
“We’re negative, negative, negative in turnovers,” said SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier. “Whether we’re able change that now after this many games will be up to great focus and the coaches harping on it.
“But that’s football. If you make one or two negative plays, you give the other team an opportunity.”
The Penguins (4-3, 1-3) haven’t been good at generating turnovers — they have five fumble recoveries and just one interception — but they may have turned a corner on defense. YSU’s coaches simplified their defensive scheme last week and the unit played one of its best games of the season.
YSU coach Eric Wolford hinted that he may do the same on offense — the Penguins like to use multiple formations and shifts — but he said it comes down to execution.
“Specifically, it’s a lack of execution,” said Wolford, whose team plays league cellar-dwellers South Dakota and Western Illinois the next two weeks. “I can’t put it any simpler than that. It’s not like you can say this guy out-schemed you or this guy outcoached you. That’s not the case.
“We’ve got the plays. We have to execute them.”
Wolford entered this season with playoff expectations and he didn’t back down from them this week.
Consequently, he knows what’s at stake.
“If we want to be in [the playoffs], this is a playoff game,” he said.