Brian Dzenis: YSU has a path to FCS playoffs
Squint hard enough and visions of Youngstown State football bouncing back after a mediocre 2017 come into focus.
Realistically, the Penguins have a path to seven or eight wins and a spot in the playoffs.
That path starts today against Butler, the first game in what is one of the softer home schedules for the Penguins. The Bulldogs are a middle-of-the-pack Pioneer League side that the Penguins have handled in the past. YSU has nothing to lose in Morgantown against West Virginia before coming home to face Valparaiso, which is in a similar spot as conference peer Butler.
Those three games are the window for answering some of the questions facing the Penguins going into the season.
Montgomery VanGorder is the unknown under center with the QB race with Nathan Mays essentially decided for YSU when Mays got hurt. It’s not like he forgot how to play football during his time as a reserve at Notre Dame. When Mays was healthy, there wasn’t much of a drop-off between the two at camp.
Head coach Bo Pelini has said multiple times in camp that the only good thing to come out of losing three starters on defense is that there’s plenty of time to adjust. Defensive end Justus Reed tore his Achilles’ in July, while the Penguins have had a few weeks to address the void at safety from Kyle Hegedus’ torn ACL and Deshon Taylor’s career-ending spinal issues. Pelini has done similar work with less notice, taking the 2016 team that lost both of its starting safeties to suspension during its run to the FCS national title game. The same secondary graduated a lot of starters heading into 2017 and that unit kept rolling to become the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s best against the pass.
Getting back to the path, league play is where things get interesting. All but one of the Missouri Valley Football Conference teams coming to Stambaugh Stadium this year are projected to finish lower than YSU in the league. Northern Iowa is the exception. Southern Illinois and Indiana State look to be bottom feeders. South Dakota’s offense is in a similar spot as YSU — starting a new quarterback and he’ll be throwing to an inexperienced group of receivers — and that should be a competitive contest. The Panthers are the home finale and it’s hard to project that far in the future, but there’s no doubt that Nov. 10 contest could decide the Penguins’ season.
That leaves the prospect of stealing a win or two on the road from one or two Western Illinois, South Dakota State, North Dakota State and the season finale at Illinois State. Both Dakotas are tough. The reigning national champion Bison return 14 starters and coaches around the FCS aren’t down on the Jackrabbits after losing their top two offensive starts — wideout Jake Weineke and tight end Dallas Goerdert — to the NFL as they’ve voted them No. 3 in the nation.
Western Illinois is already 0-1 on the season after losing 26-23 to Montana State and will host YSU after a pair of tough games in FBS Illinois and No. 25 Montana. Illinois State ended YSU’s season with 35-0 loss on homecoming and the Penguins should remember that score for the finale.
All that smoke and where does that leave YSU? A 7-4 record feels like the safest bet, but there’s a path to doing better.
Brian Dzenis covers YSU for The Vindicator. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @Brian_Dzenis.