Published September 17, 2011
Just before Saturday's postgame press conference, I saw YSU defensive line coach Tom Sims slowly shuffling down the hallway, looking like an ex-NFL lineman who had just spent the last three hours sweating out an important game.
"I'm old and tired," he said, "but happy."
For the first time since Jon Heacock was the head coach, Youngstown State can credit its defense for a win. After looking overmatched for most of the first three quarters, the Penguins forced four Illinois State punts in its last five possessions to earn the 34-27 victory.
Both offenses stalled in the final quarter as the playbook tightened up and the teams kept it on the ground. YSU coach Eric Wolford denied that the play-calling got more conservative down the stretch — "We threw the ball three straight times at the 5:35 mark," he said — but after seeing the most creative set of calls and formations of the Wolford era in the first half, it was impossible not to notice YSU's change in approach in the fourth.
(Oh, and the Penguins didn't pass three straight times. They passed twice after Jamaine Cook lost six yards on the first play of that drive.)
Then, facing a third-and-8 at his own 26, Shane Montgomery called for Kurt Hess to throw a deep pass to Jelani Berassa that went for 35 yards and sealed the game.
Let's go back to the three questions I had at the beginning of the game:
1. How will YSU's secondary play?
Pretty well. The Penguins held a team averaging close to 270 yards passing to just 155 despite losing starting QB Donald D'Alesio to an early shoulder injury. (He reinjured the same shoulder that's bothered him for months. Wolford said he's day-to-day.) True freshman Jimmy May Jr. played solid in D'Alesio's absence.
The Penguins struggled early but got it done when it counted. Encouraging effort.
2. Can YSU run?
The Redbirds gave up just 15 yards rushing in their first two games and did a pretty solid job against YSU's rushing attack, although the Penguins did gain 181 on the ground. Jamaine Cook carried 30 times for 122 yards and, outside of nearly losing a fourth quarter fumble, played well. Wolford usually rotates running backs but Jordan Thompson had just two carries and no one else had any. It was obvious they wanted Cook in there as much as possible.
3. Home field advantage?
YSU had its biggest crowd in three years (18,543) and rewarded the fans with a big win. That's the type of game that gets people coming back, although I think most people are going to wait and see how the Penguins fare against Indiana State next week.
Things just got a little tighter. Illinois State made it 34-27 on a 7-yard TD pass from Matt Brown to Marvon Sanders on an underneath slant. The Penguins have had no answer for that play all day. The drive chewed up 7:06 and went 88 yards in 14 plays.
There's about 13 minutes left.
YSU promptly went three and out on three straight runs. I'm a little baffled by that series of play-calling.
Fortunately for the Penguins, it didn't cost them the lead as the YSU defense stiffened, forcing a punt.
Both teams are starting to get a little more conservative.
The Penguin drive stalls after a big gain from Jamaine Cook. A Cook fumble and a batted down pass forced YSU to punt and the Redbirds take over at their own 14 with 7:21 left.
And the Redbirds promptly go three and out. YSU's defense has looked very impressive over the last 10 minutes.
YSU then goes three and out, thanks to a 5-yard loss on a run play to start the drive. I'll admit -- I'm a little surprised Shane Montgomery hasn't been more aggressive with his play calls. He seems to be protecting the 7-point lead more than trying to extend it to 14.
Of course, what do I know? YSU's defense holds again, with Daniel Stewart coming up with a big tackle for loss on an attempted wide receiver screen. ILS punts and the Penguins take over at the 24 with 2:23 left. The Redbirds have all three timeouts.
After two runs yielded two yards, Hess hit Jelani Berassa over his right shoulder near the right sideline for 35 yards and the ballgame. The Redbirds have one timeout left and that should do it. What a great call.
Three straight runs took all the time off the clock. Huge win.
Bad start for YSU's defense to open the second half. Illinois State drove 67 yards over 12 plays in 4:58, capping the drive with a 1-yard TD on fourth and goal as Ashton Leggett jumped over the pile and made it by inches. The Redbirds ran four straight times after getting first and goal, which tells me their coaches aren't paying attention. YSU's run defense is far ahead of its pass defense right now.
It's 28-20 with 9:58 left.
YSU answered on a 44-yard TD pass from Kurt Hess to Andre Barboza, who made a tremendous catch near the pylon. The extra point was blocked, so it's now 34-20 with 8:05 left.
After YSU pinned ILS deep in its own territory and forced a punt, but the Redbird defense forced YSU to punt for the first time since the Michigan State game. It's 34-20 with 5:24 left.
Quick note: Starting CB Donald D'Alesio is out of the game with an injury. Could be a shoulder but I'm not sure yet.
The third quarter ends with Illinois State facing a fourth and 1 at the YSU 14.
YSU leads 28-13 at halftime.
Five quick halftime thoughts:
1. YSU's defense hasn't looked great but there's an even bigger margin of error this season because YSU's offense is close to unstoppable.
The Penguins had four possessions and scored four touchdowns.
Illinois State had three possessions and scored two touchdowns.
Still, no lead is safe. This is a bad matchup for the Penguin defense because the Illinois State offense is so skilled and because they're able to spread the field pretty well.
2. Josh Lee has returned the last two kickoffs after Andre Stubbs got hurt on the opening kickoff return.
Not sure what's wrong with Stubbs, but that's a setback because he's the team's most dynamic returner
3. YSU has a good crowd today.
We won't get an official count until after the third quarter but the home side is two-thirds full and the visiting side is about three-fourths full.
A win today will help bring those fans back, not to mention provide a pretty big boost to the Penguins' confidence. As for a loss? Well ...
4. Missouri State jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead on Oregon ... then gave up 35 points.
Oregon is the second BCS opponent for Missouri State in three games; it lost to Arkansas 51-7 in the opener. I think they knew they weren't going to be good this year, so they decided to use this year to pay some bills.
5. I know I say this a lot but it's a pleasure to watch Jamaine Cook play.
He's carried 18 times for 84 yards against a team giving up less than 8 yards per game on the ground. Even better, he's had some very crucial blitz pick-ups that have given Hess a chance to keep the drive alive.
The line has also done a terrific job keeping Hess clean for the most part.
YSU's defense forced a three-and-out on Illinois State's first series of the second quarter.
The Penguins took over at their own 24 and drove 76 yards in 11 plays over 4:51. The touchdown came on a 1-yard TD run by Hess, who was met at the goal line but was able to push through. It's 21-6 with 7:20 left. We've played 22:40 and YSU has held the ball for more than 16 minutes.
The scoring drive's key play came on third and 10 when Hess bought time, rolled right and eventually found Watts for a 20-yard pass.
One of the Penguins' first downs on that drive came on a very iffy pass interference call on a deep pass intended for Jelani Berassa. He got bumped -- nothing egregious -- but he wasn't catching that pass with a step ladder, bump or no bump.
The Redbirds made it on a 5-yard TD pass from Matt Brown to Matt Younger on a third down fade pattern. Decent coverage by YSU but the defender never made a play on the ball. It's 21-13 with 2:25 left. Nice drive by Illinois State -- 10 plays, 64 yards, 4:49.
YSU struck right back, with Hess finding Andre Barboza on a 20-yard TD pass in the right corner of the north end zone to make it 28-13 with 13 seconds left. Barboza may have gotten away with a push-off. The drive went 78 yards over nine plays in 2:05.
Very, very, very impressive way to end the first half.
ILS gets the ball to start the second half.
YSU took a 7-0 lead with 9:43 on a 25-yard TD pass from Kurt Hess to Christian Bryan, hitting him over the middle at about the 5. The drive went 11 plays, 77 yards and took 5:17. Interesting drive. The Penguins weren't able to run very well and offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery really mixed in a lot of different formations. I haven't seen this much diversity in one drive since Wolford took over.
The winning play came on an empty backfield play, with RB Jamaine Cook lining up in the slot in a five-wide set. Credit goes to the offensive line for giving Hess time -- that play needed time to develop.
Illinois State came right back and made it 7-6 on a 12-yard TD pass from Matt Brown to Tyrone Walker with 6:12 left. YSU's run defense looked awful on that drive, with the Redbirds gashing YSU right up the middle. The extra point was blocked by Obinna Ekweremuba, who got good penetration through the middle of the line.
The Penguins then drove 77 yards in 14 plays over six minutes, capped by a 10-yard TD pass from Hess to Kevin Watts, who broke wide open over the middle. Again, credit the offensive line for giving that play time to develop. Watts scored with seven seconds left in the first quarter.
It's 14-6 after one. YSU really controlled the clock in the first quarter, chewing up more than 11 minutes.
OK, let's start off with the obvious. This is a big game for YSU. This is one of those games that could determine whether the Penguins go 7-4 or 5-6. (Or 8-3. Or 6-5.)
Here's three things I'm watching today:
1. How will YSU's secondary play?
It's no coincidence this was my first question last week, too. This is still the team's biggest question mark and we didn't learn much last week except that Valparaiso stinks.
Most people figure Illinois State is a middle-of-the-pack team -- well, except for Redbirds fans -- but it boasts maybe the best passing quarterback in the league in junior Matt Brown, whose offense returns 10 starters.
YSU's DBs don't need to shut the Redbirds down. Just play to a draw.
2. Can YSU run?
The Redbirds' defense is giving up 7 yards per game through the first two weeks but that could be because they played two pass-happy teams that were playing from behind. The Penguins gashed them pretty good last year, with Jamaine Cook going over 200 yards in arguably the best game of his career.
Earlier this week, Wolford talked about how YSU will need to pass because Illinois State will shut down his run game, a claim absolutely no one believed. Wolford likes to run and I expect him to pound it and control the clock.
3. Home field advantage?
A lot of people at YSU were disappointed in last week's crowd of 14,000 -- the actual number that showed up was probably closer to 10,000 -- and they were hoping it was due more to the opponent and the weather forecast than apathy.
Well, so far, so good. More than 18,000 tickets have been sold, which means it should top the biggest crowd from last season: 18,025 in the home opener against Butler. With a good walk-up, it could approach 20,000.
One injury note to pass on: Junior TE Will Shaw is out with an ankle injury. He's the only injury update from the last few days -- that I know of.
I think there's a lot of cautious optimism about this team. But, then, YSU beat Southern Illinois in last year's conference opener in front of 17,066 so there was a lot of cautious optimism then, too.
Finally, just want to pass on some good news. Former WYTV sportscaster Bill Castrovince had successful brain surgery yesterday.
Here's an update from his fiancee, courtesy of his Facebook page:
"Wanted to share the good news. Bill is out of surgery and everything went well. We will get to see him soon and he will be recovering in the hospital for the next few days. I will let Bill send out a more detailed update later but just wanted to let everyone know. Thanks for the kind thoughts and prayers. We appreciate it!"
Castrovince, who turns 40 in November, is one of the best people I've met in my 10 years in this business. I remember the first few times I met him, thinking, "He can't be this nice. He has to be phony. There has to be a dark side."
Well, there's not. Castrovince worked in Youngstown for more than 12 years before leaving for SportsTime Ohio's "High School Sports Insider" about a year ago.
Anyway, please continue to pray for Bill's recovery.
And if you're not the praying type, well, you should be. There's power in prayer.