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Golden opportunity awaits Penguins

Saturday, November 12, 2016

One more victory equals playoff berth

By Charles Grove

The message is simple — win and you’re in the playoffs. The Youngstown State football team will try to do just that today at noon against Southern Illinois on Senior Day.

While players and coaches will tell you no game in the Missouri Valley Football Conference is easy, there won’t be a better chance to pick up that final win for a playoff berth than today.

The Salukis (3-6, 1-5 MVFC) are sitting in last place in the conference and just came off a five-game losing streak after beating South Dakota 35-28 last week.

In addition, SIU boasts a porous defense that ranks eighth in total defense in the conference giving up 430.6 yards per game. If the YSU offense is going to get on track at any time this season, today would be the day.

The cherry on top is the Penguins are a perfect 5-0 at home. A win today would be the first time YSU has had a perfect home record since 2005.

If the Penguins (6-3, 4-2) can’t get the job done today, a road win at Missouri State will be required to see YSU’s first postseason since 2006.

Offensive tackle Justin Spencer said you could say the playoffs begin this week for the Penguins.

In order to win this first “playoff” game, Spencer said execution inside the red zone will be key. YSU has put points on the board in only three of their last eight red zone opportunities. None of them have resulted in a touchdown.

“We just have to execute better in the red zone,” Spencer said. “Too many mental mistakes take us out of drives.”

Even though the ultimate goal of playoffs looming, Spencer said he still knows there are regular-season games to be won.

“Obviously our goal is to make the playoffs but we’re not so focused on playoffs that we’re going to avoid the next two weeks.”

Defensively, that focus will have to be on the Southern Illinois passing attack. The Salukis have the second-best passing attack in the conference at 316 yards per game.

Sophomore quarterback Sam Straub made his first career start last week, completing 19 of 34 passes for 339, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Straub also rushed 16 times for 68 yards and a rushing touchdown.

“This is a really good offense,” linebacker Jamar Pinnock said. “Their record might say that they’re bad but they’re a really good team.

Last year’s crushing loss will certainly be on the minds of veterans. YSU held a 31-20 lead with 5:35 to play but the Salukis came back just 25 seconds later with a 75-yard touchdown pass and two-point conversion. A field goal with six seconds left forced overtime before SIU scored the only points of overtime.

A fourth-quarter comeback would be highly unlikely with the way YSU’s defense has been playing this year, especially late in games.

The Penguins have out-scored opponents 83-28 in the final 15 minutes in games this season.