YSU’s upset bid falls just short
By Brian Dzenis
The Youngstown State football team has the respect of the Pittsburgh Panthers, but the Penguins would have preferred the win.
YSU put on a show at Heinz Field rallying from a three-touchdown deficit, but Bo Pelini’s side took a 28-21 loss in overtime on Saturday.
“I’m never pleased when we don’t win,” Pelini said. “I fully expected to win this football game and it didn’t happen.”
YSU, which played in the FCS title game on Jan. 7, doesn’t have the attitude of a team happy to be competitive against an FBS team. Take quarterback Hunter Wells, who threw for 311 yards and two TDs as he led two 90-yard touchdown drives to bring the Penguins back from a 21-0 first-half deficit. Where it’s hard for him to find solace in his numbers is his lone interception.
YSU elected to play defense to start the extra period. After the Panthers collected a first down, Max Browne found Jester Weah in the corner of the endzone for the go-ahead 11-yard touchdown pass.
When it was the Penguins’ turn, Wells tried to hit Alvin Bailey from 16 yards out, but Pitt free safety Bricen Garner made a game-clinching interception.
“We didn’t win, so I’m not going to sit here and tell you I played a great game,” Wells said. “We only had those three drives that first half. If you want to look for someone to blame, blame me.
“I missed a read the first drive. The second drive I overthrew [Tevin McCaster] on a wheel route. The third drive I came out and had an intentional grounding, and then obviously [the interception] at the end. I’ve just got to take care of the ball, be a senior and not look like a freshman out there.”
The reason the game reached that point was because of YSU’s defense, which didn’t come alive until the second half.
“It’s nothing magical. It’s about playing the fundamentals better than we did in the first half,” Pelini said. “When we got back to that and we fixed some things, I think we played better football.”
The second half was a series of firsts. The Penguins’ first defensive stop didn’t come until the third quarter. On the road team’s next drive, it produced its first points.
McCaster’s 1-yard touchdown run broke the shutout at the end of an 11-play, 90-yard drive.
Then defensive end Fazson Chapman picked up his team’s first sack to lead to Pitt’s first punt. The Penguins continued to collect first downs as they drove to the Panthers’ 43. Wells tried a pooch punt on a fourth-and-3 only to see it blocked and returned by Pitt’s Jazzee Stocker to YSU’s 3. The Penguins’ defense stuffed the Panthers and a field goal attempt by true freshman Alex Kessman’s bounced off the right upright.
Wells led another 90-yard scoring drive, this time ending it with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Christian Turner on a wheel route.
Justus Reed gave his teammates a chance to tie the game by strip-sacking Browne and recovering the fumble at Pitt’s 42. One play later, Wells hit Turner again for a wheel-route touchdown.
“I really can’t remember [if it was the same play call as his first touchdown], but it was the same concept,” Turner said.
Pitt had the ball again with 3:35 left to play. The Panthers’ drive stalled at YSU’s 17 and the home team trotted out Kessman to try to win the game with a 38-yard field goal. The kick sailed wide right at the end of regulation.
YSU improved from -1 rushing yards in the first half to 122. McCaster led all rushers with 77 yards. Tight end Kevin Rader hauled in six passes for 100 yards.
“We were down 21-0, and we came out [in the second half], and it just shows what kind of heart and passion is on this team. We’re really resilient,” Wells said. “We’re not going to back down.
“We’re not going to stop playing until the final whistle. It’s a tough loss, but it shows a lot about this team — how we can play when we put our mind to it. It shows the character, too.”