Published October 20, 2011
Earlier this week, I asked senior cornerback Josh Lee what grade he would give the defense at the midpoint of the season.
“It’s kind of hard to tell,” he said. “The season is incomplete.
“I’m hoping toward the end we get an A.”
YSU coach Eric Wolford said if you were grading specific positions, it could range from an A to an F.
“I’m not in the position right now where I’m ready to hand out grades,” he said. “I’m used to giving grades after the final tests.”
Well, consider this a midterm report card. I’m not ready to give anyone an F — although I came close — but the defense would have to play like the 1985 Chicago Bears over the final five weeks to earn an A.
Statistics: Averaging 35.8 points per game, 453.8 yards, 228.2 rushing yards and 225.7 passing yards.
Analysis: Youngstown State leads the conference in yards per game and is either first or second in points per game (depending on whether you count all games, or just conference games).
So why only a B-plus?
First, the Penguins scored just 21 offensive points against South Dakota State (the other TD came on defense).
Second, they were behind Indiana State 21-0 before getting a first down.
The defense deserves much of the blame for those two losses but not all of it.
Analysis: Outside of a mediocre outing against South Dakota State, you could make a case that Hess has been the league’s best passing quarterback so far, leading the Valley with 10 TD passes in four conference games and averaging 256.0 yards per game in a run-first offense.
After earning Freshman of the Year honors last season, Hess has been even better this fall.
Running backs: B-plus.
Analysis: Indiana State’s Shakir Bell is more explosive (as YSU fans learned all too clearly), but when you factor in everything from running to receiving to pass protection to intangibles (leadership, work ethic), I think Jamaine Cook is the league’s best back.
Problem is, Cook has looked worn down at times due to overuse. Sophomores Adaris Bellamy and Jordan Thompson (who is still recovering from a shoulder injury) need to do more with their opportunities, and the coaches need to make sure they get more opportunities. Otherwise, Cook is going to be the league’s most battered back by Week 11.
Analysis: Freshman Christian Bryan has been tremendous and Jelani Berassa and Andre Barboza have proven to be reliable and productive, particularly in the red zone. Their blocking could be better and I’d like to see more yards after contact, but those are small complaints.
The team’s biggest question mark entering training camp is now a team strength.
Analysis: This unit struggled against Indiana State but has given up just six sacks and has paved the way for one of the Valley’s best running attacks.
They had their best game of the season last week against Southern Illinois.
Statistics: Giving up 27.2 points per game and 363.8 yards per game, including 30.5 points in conference games (third-worst) and 374 yards in conference games (middle of the pack).
Analysis: The defense finally showed some signs of life in the win over Southern Illinois but played poorly in the other three conference games, two of them losses.
Thanks to vanilla schemes, poor tackling and missed assignments, the Penguins have yet to deliver on the high expectations they had this summer but there’s a lot of young talent here. This unit is poised to be strong in the future, although it might take a year or two before it’s good enough for the Penguins to make a lengthy playoff run.
Analysis: Senior DT Andrew Johnson has been the team’s best defensive player so far and outside of a rough game against Indiana State, the line has been solid. This unit is clearly the strength of the defense.
Analysis: A big weakness for the early part of the conference season (thanks in part to playing three freshman for much of the time), this unit had its best game of the season against Southern Illinois and should only get better as the season wears on.
The low grade is due to atrocious coverage on inside slants (particularly against Illinois State and South Dakota State) and awful run tackling against Indiana State. There’s talent here but it needs to develop.
Analysis: YSU was supposed to have taken its lumps at this position last year but injuries to Donald D’Alesio, Jamarious Boatwright and Deionte Williams has left the Penguins with first-year starters at all four positions.
Like the linebackers, there is some talent here (freshman Devont’a Davis, in particular, has the potential to be an all-league cornerback) and hope for the future. But the present has been rough.
Overall grade: C
Analysis: Punter Nick Liste has played well and LB Davion Rogers has been terrific, both in blocking kicks (two of the team’s four) and in coverage.
But the Penguins are 0-for-2 on field goal attempts, are mediocre on kick and punt returns (a season-ending shoulder
injury to freshman WR Andre Stubbs was a huge blow) and were basically helpless in kickoff coverage against Southern Illinois.
If special teams don’t improve, this unit could easily end up costing YSU a win at some point.
Overall grade: B
Analysis: Last year, the Penguins were in every conference game despite being outmanned at most positions. That’s not as big of an excuse this year.
The team came out inexplicably flat against Indiana State, falling behind 21-0 before it had a chance to blink, and the coaches deserve their share of the blame for an indefensible loss to South Dakota State.
But Wolford and his staff did a good job upgrading the talent in the offseason and offensive coordinator Shane
Montgomery deserves credit for his creative play-calling and aggressive approach, two big reasons why the Penguins lead the conference in yards per game. And Andre Coleman has gotten the receivers to perform at a higher and more consistent level than anyone expected.
Wolford could still stand to show more humility — he’s gone out of his way a few times to remind us that “it’s not the schemes” that are to blame for his team’s struggles — but he’s a straight-shooter who refuses to make excuses. There’s a lot to be said for that.