Ed Puskas: Frustrated YSU finds end zone

It hasn’t quite been the search for the Holy Grail, but the Youngstown State football team has been on an epic quest.

At times, it seemed the Penguins couldn’t find the end zone with a flashlight, a map and GPS coordinates. They hadn’t scored more than 13 points since a 14-10 win over Northern Iowa on Oct. 15. They hadn’t reached 20 in a game since a 20-6 win at Illinois State a week earlier.

And the Penguins had not scored 30 points since a wildly uneven 30-20 win over South Dakota on Oct. 1.

The Penguins left at least 20 points on the field that day. Perhaps more. Consider that game the start of their offensive swoon.

And yet, somehow, a few weeks later YSU was still unbeaten at home and its FCS playoff chances were healthy going into Senior Day against Southern Illinois on Saturday at Stambaugh Stadium.

But the scoring cold snap was infuriating for YSU’s players, coaches and fans. It was frustrating for a team that has had three productive and — at times — dominant running backs to put on the field.

“It’s almost like the end zone was running away from us,” Penguins running back Jody Webb said.

The Penguins finally caught up against the Salukis.

YSU scored its first offensive touchdown in three games late in the first quarter on Tevin McCaster’s 1-yard run into the south end zone at Stambaugh Stadium.

The Penguins added another touchdown about five minutes later when Hunter Wells — who recently returned to his former role as YSU’s starting quarterback — threw a 10-yard strike to wide receiver Alvin Bailey in the left corner of the Ice Castle’s north end zone.

There were hiccups — backup kicker Nate Needham missed field goals of 27 and 44 yards in the first two quarters — but YSU led 14-0 at halftime.

But as has been typical for the Penguins of second-year head coach Bo Pelini, prosperity was difficult to handle and maintain.

SIU (3-7, 1-6 Missouri Valley Football Conference) used a 16-play, 78-yard drive to cut its deficit to 14-7 late in the third quarter.

Early in the fourth — after a YSU punt — the Salukis struck quickly thanks to a 73-yard catch and run by Israel Lamprakes. Quarterback Sam Straub found Lamprakes wide open deep after a Penguins defender fell down. The play took SIU to the YSU 9 and moments later Straub hit Connor Iwema for a TD and the game was tied at 14.

But the Penguins later took advantage of a third-down sack by its defense and a poor punt to get the ball at midfield on what turned out to be the winning drive.

Suddenly, this team can find then end zone. Wells, growing more comfortable with each snap, found Darien Townsend for a 10-yard TD and the lead with 4:59 to play.

The Penguins’ defense then weathered two late drives deep into YSU territory to finish off the Salukis.

“We can’t make it easy, can we?” Pelini said.

But they just might be getting just a little better at it — and just in time.

Write Vindicator Sports Editor Ed Puskas at epuskas@vindy.com and follow him on Twitter, @EdPuskas_Vindy

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