Published October 8, 2011
In his postgame press conference, Eric Wolford made no excuses for the loss and said there was plenty of blame to go around.
He's exactly right. YSU had two turnovers on offense, one on special teams (along with a missed field goal) and was absolutely gashed on defense.
I've covered all but one of the 16 games in the Wolford era and this was, by far, the worst. YSU should have won this game by double digits. Instead, the program took a big step back.
Let's review my three keys to the game:
1. Can anyone here tackle?
I guess you could argue the tackling was better than Indiana State, but that's pretty faint praise. The bigger question is, Can anyone here cover?
YSU started the second half with two freshmen corners, Jimmy May and Devont'a Davis, and neither played well. The Penguins simply can't cover anyone in space.
2. How about a turnover?
Davion Rogers' 27-yard interception return for a touchdown was big and the defense also forced a fumble, so this wasn't really a big problem. The problem was, South Dakota State ran 74 plays — 74!
This year's defense has more pure talent and athleticism but I'm not convinced it's any better than the one that cost YSU so many games last year.
3. Will someone hit a home run?
YSU got two long touchdown passes, so, again, this wasn't the big problem. The problem was its inability to run the ball. Jamaine Cook carried 18 times for 107 yards and a TD but he still doesn't look quite himself. (I'm told he was sick during the Indiana State game, which explains why he lacked his normal burst.) Backup Adaris Bellamy was mostly ineffective; he ran better last year.
Bottom line: The honeymoon period for Wolford is over and he and his staff are going to face some serious criticism from disgruntled fans this week. And the only way it's going to lessen is by winning some games.
The Jackrabbits tied the game at 28 on a third-and-goal at the 5. Austin Sumner hit Aaron Rollin, who beat freshman CB Devont'a Davis on a quick throw to the right sideline.
There's 12:36 left. YSU had a chance to seize control of the game late in third quarter but South Dakota State hung around and now it's tied.
Jamaine Cook has carried just 11 times today -- he also has three catches -- so look for YSU to get him the ball.
He does, but leaves the game limping after three carries. Facing a fourth-and-1 at the South Dakota State 40, Wolford rolls the dice and gives the ball to Adaris Bellamy, who picks up the yard. Biggest call of the game so far.
Unfortunately, the drive stalls at the 27. On fourth-and-10, Wolfords trots out punter Nick Liste for the 44-yard attempt, which had plenty of length but goes wide right. Not sure about that decision. I think I would have kept the ball in Hess's hands.
It's 28-28 with 6:06 left.
And now it's not. On the Jackrabbits' first play, CB Jimmy May gets absolutely fried deep as Austin Sumner hits Aaron Rollin for a 73-yard touchdown. He was 10 yards behind May when he caught it.
It's 35-28 with 5:55 left.
YSU again drives into South Dakota State territory and again the drive stalls. Hess was sacked on third down, bringing up a fourth-and-18. With four minutes left, you have to punt here.
SDSU takes over at the 13 with 3:50 left. YSU has one timeout left. The Penguins have to get a stop.
And after giving up a 9-yard run on first down, somehow, they do. Two straight stuffed runs and they bring out the chains but SDSU is inches short. Incredible. Somehow, YSU is still alive.
The Jackrabbits punt and YSU gets the ball back at its own 35 with 2:14 left. No timeouts left.
It's first and the season.
YSU picks up four first downs -- one by run, two by pass, one by penalty -- to set up a first down at the 17 with 1:03 left. Three straight incompletions set up third down. Then Hess was too high on a pass intended for Jelani Berassa at the 2.
That's the game. Wow. Huge, huge, huge loss.
YSU forced a punt on South Dakota State's first possession, with linebacker Davion Rogers covering -- wait for it -- the inside slant. What a miracle.
YSU started the second half with two freshmen corners (Jimmy May and Devont'a Davis) and three freshmen linebackers (Travis Williams, Teven Williams and Rogers). That's a recipe for disaster.
YSU drove to the Jackrabbits' 45 but the drive stalled and the Penguins are forced to punt on their first possession. Nick Liste's punt bounces at the 3, then skips into the end zone for a touchback.
It's 21-14 SDSU with 10:46 left in the third quarter.
YSU then forced its first three-and-out of the game, getting a boost by a second down sack by Andrew Johnson.
For the third straight week, YSU's defense looks different in the second half. We'll see if that sticks.
YSU starts its second drive of the second half at the SDSU 48 and immediately ties the game on a 48-yard TD pass to Jelani Berassa. Hess bought some time and Berassa broke open over the middle for an easy touchdown.
HOLY COW. YSU makes it 28-21 on a 27-yard interception return by LB Davion Rogers, who caught a tipped pass that was too high for the intended South Dakota State receiver.
What did I say about a recipe for disaster? It's 28-21 with 8:47 left in the third quarter and the Penguins have played the first seven minutes like their season is on the line. When Rogers returned the ball, you could see linebackers coaches Frank Buffano and Ron Stoops going nuts in the booth next to the press. I saw them at halftime and they looked like they were at a wake.
What a difference.
YSU then forces another punt, thanks to a dropped pass over the middle on third down. Daniel Stewart got terrific pressure on that play.
But the Penguins give the ball back on a fumbled punt return by Josh Lee. The replay confirmed he was down but there's no replay in I-AA football.
The refs blow a call and SDSU catches a break, taking over at its own 47.
Doesn't matter. A clearly frazzled Austin Sumner threw two incompletions and was sacked on third down by Daniel Stewart. YSU is winning up front right now and Sumner is finally starting to look like a redshirt freshman.
YSU takes over at its own 27 with 6:22 left. It's 28-21 YSU.
The Penguins drove inside Jackrabbit territory but their drive stalled and SDSU fair cuaght a punt at the 12. There's 4:17 left. The quarter ends with the Jackrabbits facing a second-and-five at the Penguins' 39.
1. South Dakota State is essentially burning YSU's defense with one play: the inside slant. The Penguins couldn't cover it against Illinois State and they can't cover it now.
Add in seven penalties and two interceptions and there's no secret why YSU is trailing 21-14.
2. YSU's defense has played better in the second half of its two conference games.
So, you know, that's something.
3. South Dakota State may be better than its 1-4 record, but it's not this much better.
If YSU loses, there's no way to spin this. It's a HUGE setback.
After YSU's drive stalled on fourth-and-1 near midfield, the Penguins punted and the YSU got its first stop, thanks to a fumbled SDSU snap and an Andrew Johnson sack. It wasn't pretty but the Penguins were finally able to force a punt.
YSU takes over at its own 17 trailing 14-7 with about nine minutes left.
The Penguins then picked up a first down before the drive stalled. Nick Liste had a good punt inside the 10 but David Godley had a nice return to the 26.
South Dakota State drove to the YSU 20 but a bad snap bailed out the Penguins' defense. Linebacker Deonta Tate fell on the ball and the Penguins will take over at their own 25.
YSU needs to score here because SDSU QB Austin Sumner is carving up the Penguin defense right now.
AND ... they do. YSU came out with urgency and after two quick first downs, Kurt Hess hit Christian Bryan on a deep touchdown pass that goes for 51 yards. It's 14-14 with 1:45 left and YSU finally got a home run ball.
Nick Liste hammered the ensuing kickoff, Chuck Lengyel made a nice tackle in coverage and SDSU was hit by a penalty to back the Jackrabbits up to their own 7.
Doesn't matter. The Jackrabbits drove 93 yards in 90 seconds, with Austin Sumner hitting Brandon Hubert on a 10-yard TD pass with 16 seconds left. YSU knocked the ball out of his hands after he crossed the goal line but it was ruled complete and it's 21-14.
A perfect ending to an absolutely putrid defensive performance in the first half. Unless a few of the 1991 alumni have some eligibility left, the Penguins are in trouble.
The half ends with Hess getting picked off at the SDSU 35 and it almost got returned for a touchdown.
YSU gave out trading cards to every fan today. They should have handed out blindfolds.
The Penguins took a 7-0 lead on their opening drive, sparked by a 39-yard scramble by Kurt Hess and a fourth-and-1 pickup at the SDSU 10. Jamaine Cook scored the touchdown on a 7-yard run.
Wolford likes to say, "I like touchdowns. I don't like field goals." He showed it there.
YSU then immediately committed three straight blunders, kicking the ball out of bounds on the kickoff and jumping offsides on the first two plays. South Dakota took advantage, driving the final 50 yards to tie the game on a 1-yard TD run by Tyrel Kool.
Yeesh. Not a good start for the Penguin defense.
YSU started its ensuing drive with a delay of game penalty. I think Wolford might blow a gasket. He doesn't seem to be screaming too much but I'm sure he's furious inside.
YSU's drive ends on a tipped ball that was picked off by linebacker Chris Tracy at the SDSU 30.
On the Jackrabbits' first play, Zach Zenner exploded through the middle for a 44 yard run. Three plays later, YSU true freshman CB Jimmy May got beat bad out an out route, falling down as Dale Moss caught the pass from Austin Sumner, which he quickly turned into a 27-yard touchdown.
Yeesh. Not a good second drive for YSU's defense, either. It's 14-7 late in the first quarter.
The quarter ends with YSU driving toward midfield. At least this week's first quarter is better than than the one two weeks ago.
YSU is honoring the 1991 national championship team at halftime of today's game and from what I'm told, they are not expecting Jim Tressel to attend. So, unless something surprising happens, he won't be here today.
Boardman native Sarah Turner sang the national anthem. That girl can sing.
OK, a couple pregame thoughts, plus keys to the game.
1. I think today's game, and next week's game, are the most crucial of the season. Today is a must-win, not only to keep the Penguins in the playoff hunt, but to show Eric Wolford's program is moving forward in his second year.
YSU should win today's game by double digits and I think it will. Next week, the Penguins travel to Southern Illinois for the most winnable road game remaining. The other two, North Dakota State and UNI, don't look real winnable right now.
2. YSU sold close to 15,000 presale tickets and today's weather should bring a decent walk-up. But I think a lot of fans are skeptical after the loss to Indiana State two weeks ago. That's another reason this game is so big.
3. I got my first "Why did they fire Heacock for this guy" email this week. That tells me the honeymoon is over and it's time for Wolford to win. YSU has lost 11 of its last 12 October games, so a 4-0 October would do a lot, not just for this year but for next year, when the Penguins will have the talent and experience to start thinking about making a run at the Missouri Valley title. They're not there yet.
KEYS TO THE GAME
1. Can anyone here tackle?
After repeated breakdowns on basic plays against Indiana State, Wolford spent the open week working on fundamentals. I'll go on the record as being against starting three freshmen linebackers, but there's no question they're talented. If they can improve, and YSU's fundamentals can improve, the defense should be able to keep the Penguins in games.
Considering YSU's offense, they don't need to be the Steel Curtain, just better.
2. How about a turnover?
South Dakota State enters today's game with 13 turnovers. The Penguins have struggled to create turnovers and need to find some defensive playmakers.
3. Will someone hit a home run?
As good as YSU's offense has been, the Penguins have had to gain yards in bites. A couple big plays -- maybe from returning receiver Pat White -- would be nice.