Published September 21, 2013http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd">
1. I said before the Duquesne game that I didn't really have a good feel for Youngstown State (good or bad), and that I probably wouldn't until conference play began next week.
Turns out, that's not entirely true. Through four games, there are clear definite strengths and weaknesses. And they look awfully familiar.
2. YSU's defense was missing four starters against the Dukes (LB Travis Williams, DT D.J. Moss, S Donald D'Alesio, CB Julius Childs) and a key rotation guy (DT Octavius Brown), so some of the Penguins' pass-defense issues were the result of some key players being out.
But this year's defense sure looks a lot like the previous three. The Penguins are solid against the run and really struggle against the pass, particularly against mobile quarterbacks.
3. YSU radio analyst Chris Sammarone brought this up quite a bit during Saturday's game, so I'll repeat it here: When the Penguins get a pass rush, it's usually because of a scheme (either a blitz or a stunt) and not because YSU's defensive linemen are flat-out beating the guy in front of them. And losing Moss and Brown isn't an excuse. Those guys are run-stuffers, not pass-rush specialists.
4. This is a big problem because YSU's secondary has some issues. Childs had a rough game against Michigan State, CB Dale Peterman missed the first three games (and admitted he was a little rusty against Duquesne), nickelback Jamarious Boatwright may miss the rest of the year with an ACL injury and D'Alesio has battled injuries his whole career. No big deal, except they just happen to be the only four players with any experience in conference play.
You can argue whether YSU's pass defense struggles are due more to the lack of a pass rush or struggles in the secondary, but they obviously go hand-in-hand.
When the Penguins beat North Dakota State two years ago (and nearly beat Northern Iowa), it was because the defensive line was winning individual battles. It didn't happen much last year. It needs to start happening again.
5. OK, time for some positive stuff. First, I liked how YSU reacted when the game got close in the third quarter. After Duquesne closed within 24-14, the Penguins scored on their next three possessions, starting with two vintage drives.
The first scoring drive covered 11 plays and 84 yards, the second went seven plays, 60 yards.
When YSU's offense has been good under Wolford — and it's usually been good — those are the kinds of drives you see. And it all starts with Kurt Hess, who has been pretty solid the last three weeks.
6. I've been a Nate Adams fan since he had a breakout spring game as a redshirt freshman and he had a Will Shaw-like game against the Dukes, posting career-highs with four catches for 108 yards. He can be a weapon.
And how good was it to see Christian Bryan back in the game plan? After going without a catch for the first time in his career in last week's game, Hess hit Bryan for a 15-yard game on Saturday's first play. He finished with three catches for 43 yards and did a terrific job fielding punt returns in traffic.
Also, Jelani Berassa had just one catch for 9 yards but he looked as good as I've seen him this year. Add in three catches for 84 yards from Marcel Caver and it was a solid day for YSU's wideouts/tight ends.
7. Another game, another solid performance from Martin Ruiz, who rushes for 65 yards and three TDs.
I would have liked to see more from Demond Hymes (two carries, 7 yards) heading into the conference schedule (not to mention Adaris Bellamy, who was warming up before the game but didn't play), but Ruiz has easily been the best player from this year's freshman recruiting class.
8. The best non-freshman from this year's recruiting class? Junior kicker Joey Cejudo, who is 22 of 22 on extra points and added a career-long 40-yard field goal on Saturday. He's 3-for-3 on field goals and it's not hard to picture a scenario where he is the difference in a couple conference games.
Meanwhile, punter Nick Liste had another solid day, averaging 38.0 yards with two inside 20. He also had four touchbacks in 10 kickoffs. (His game wasn't up to his own high standards, though. Afterward he tweeted, "Great win for the team. I have a lot of work to do this week.")
9. I think this weekend's Southern Illinois game is really crucial, both for this season and the program. With North Dakota State, South Dakota State and Northern Iowa all looking like playoff teams, the MVFC's final playoff spot (assuming it gets four) could come down to the Salukis or the Penguins.
If YSU wins, the October/early November schedule is set up nicely for the Penguins with winnable games against Indiana State, Illinois State, Western Illinois and South Dakota.
Just beating Southern Illinois and Indiana State the next two weeks would do wonders for fan interest. So far, I've sensed a lot of apathy about this season from fans, which is why people seem to ask me as much about the Mid-American Conference (which YSU isn't joining) as the Penguins' playoff hopes. (You'd be amazed how often I'm asked about the MAC. YSU fans really hate the MVFC, mostly because the games are in the middle of nowhere.)
10. I know what you're thinking: "Aren't you selling YSU short by saying it will battle for the MVFC's fourth playoff berth?"
My answer: I sure hope so.