Precious few people braved the elements Saturday at Stambaugh Stadium, but those who did were rewarded with the Youngstown State football team’s best performance of the season.
So where were these Penguins all year?
It was Senior Day, but YSU’s 31-10 victory over Northern Iowa also was tinged with an added emotion — the unmistakable sense of what could have been.
If only the Penguins had played the way they have in two November games in September and October instead of watching their season go sideways from the start.
It’s too late for anything other than pride, but we’re finally seeing what YSU head coach Bo Pelini thought the Penguins could do all along.
“We played good football. We played well and it was fun to watch,” Pelini said. “Our approach and our energy were there. ... We’re playing a lot better football.”
It took two months, but the Penguins are playing good football.
“I was just saying, ‘Man, what if we could have put this all together all season,” said senior linebacker Armand Dellovade. “But that’s not where we’re at right now. It’s sad ... we are a good football team.”
A transformation began last week in a 17-7 loss to top-ranked North Dakota State in Fargo. The Penguins couldn’t pull off the upset, but traded blows with the Bison most of the way in the Fargo Dome.
This time, YSU was just too much for UNI.
“I think we just got back to what we used to do,” said senior center Vitas Hrynkiewicz.
“We’re a physical football team. We’re a down-the-hill, run-pass football team. We want to be physical at the point of attack. We wanted to hit them in the mouth and make them respond.”
YSU’s physicality showed in the numbers. The Penguins (4-5, 3-4 Missouri Valley Football Conference) rushed for 192 yards, most of that by senior running back Tevin McCaster (35 carries, 136 yards, three touchdowns).
“I didn’t think I was going to get it 35 times, but the game plan was to go right at them,” said McCaster, a native of New Castle, Pa. “Today was one of those games when everyone came out ready and everyone had that energy.”
The offensive line that opened holes for McCaster in the run game also protected quarterback Montgomery VanGorder well — he wasn’t sacked once — and the senior responded with perhaps his best game (13 of 22, 209 yards, one TD and one interception).
VanGorder threw a 62-yard touchdown pass to Darius Shackleford and found Miles Joiner for 52 yards to set up one of McCaster’s TD runs.
VanGorder spread the ball around, completing passes to seven different receivers.
The Penguins also played one of their best games defensively, limiting the Panthers (5-5, 4-3) to 192 yards. UNI quarterback Eli Dunne appeared to struggle with the blustery conditions, completing just 8 of 22 passes for 73 yards.
Marucus Weymiller ran for 89 yards on 19 carries and Tyler Hoosman added 71 yards on 10 carries, including a 36-yard run, but the Panthers converted just 2 of 13 third-down situations and twice botched shotgun snaps inside YSU’s 10-yard line and fumbled at their own 5.
“We’ve had enough bad bounces, so it was good to see us get a couple of breaks,” Pelini said.
If only the Penguins had been able to create those sorts of breaks at key times earlier in the season, they could be preparing to play beyond next week.
But better late than never. YSU will finish the season at Illinoi State next Saturday.
“We’ve got one more on the road against a good football team and the challenge will be there,” Pelini said.
Write Vindicator Sports Editor Ed Puskas at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @EdPuskas_Vindy.