Penguins' playoff hopes take a hit


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by Joe Scalzo - "A blog about YSU Penguin athletics, not the insides of penguins."   | 155 entries"> Untitled document

1. As we were walking from the UNI-Dome to the bus, Youngstown State radio analyst Chris Sammarone said, "This is the kind of loss that can help you. It gets you focused. Unfortunately, you've got the best team in the country coming to your place next week."

As I mentioned in my story in Sunday's paper, the Penguins were in a similar situation in 2011, losing 21-17 in Cedar Falls before beating North Dakota State the following week.

The difference is, that 2011 UNI loss appeared to have ended YSU's playoff hopes. (That turned out not to be true. The season-ending loss to Missouri State took care of those.) This year's Penguins still only need to win one of their last two to clinch a playoff berth. And if they win both, they'll spend Thanksgiving weekend on the couch, courtesy of a first-round bye.

Will the loss help? I'm skeptical. But it might not hurt too much.

2. Yes, Northern Iowa's 4-5 record was deceiving, since one of those losses was by one point to North Dakota State, followed by three straight overtime losses.

But with the Panthers' starting quarterback, starting running back and best linebacker all injured, YSU should have won this one.

UNI backup QB Brion Carnes played pretty well in the second half, but he was still a big step down from the starter, Sawyer Kollmorgen. And the Panthers clearly miss electrifying RB David Johnson (who torched YSU last season). And with a 14-3 lead, YSU had a chance to put the game away in the first half.

But it didn't. Then the Penguins had two second-half turnovers (a Kurt Hess interception and a Martin Ruiz fumble on a kickoff return) and had a punt blocked on another rough day for the special teams.

3. In the postgame press conference and in the locker room, head coach Eric Wolford took the blame for the loss, which is a good sign. That's what a head coach should do.

Wolford has a reputation for being cocky (which he is) and for blaming his players (which has been overblown but is partly true), two things that irritate a fan base used to Jim Tressel and Jon Heacock, who were incredibly dull in postgame press conferences but a lot more polished than Wolford.

I actually appreciate Wolford's honesty — we've had our differences, but I enjoy covering him — but I've written before that he needs to take the blame after these kinds of games, even if he doesn't mean it. It plays well with the public, and with his players.

"Wolf took responsibility for the loss and we love it when a head coach does that; that's why we respect him so much," QB Kurt Hess told me after the game. "But I talked to those guys on offense and said we should all look in the mirror and look at ourselves. We did not play well enough to win today."

4. YSU entered the game on a six-game winning streak but the dirty little secret is the Penguins haven't played a really good game since routing Illinois State on Oct. 12.

The Penguins were good enough to beat Western Illinois and South Dakota at less than their best, but not UNI.

I actually felt YSU's defense played pretty well on Saturday, but there were a couple plays out there on that last drive that it just didn't make. The biggest came during the last drive, when safety Donald D'Alesio jumped a route and had a pass hit him in the chest. If he makes that interception, this is a very different blog.

5. Linebacker Ali Cheaib was named player of the game by Sammarone and play-by-play announcer Bob Hannon, which was well-deserved.

Starting in place of suspended LB Travis Williams (who missed the first half due to his targeting ejection last week), Cheaib had five tackles, including three for loss. I actually thought he might have had more tackles. (That stat is notoriously unreliable.)

When healthy, Cheaib is a difference-maker. I'll be interested to see if he's earned another start.

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