Penguins grade poorly after losing campaign
By Brian Dzenis
Youngstown State’s 2018 football season started with a stumble that ended up defining the season.
The baffling 23-21 loss to scholarship-less Butler was the beginning of a season of baffling inconsistency. The team never won two games in a row while shuffling to 4-7 with a 3-5 mark in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Head coach Bo Pelini suffered the second losing season of his head coaching career and his future is currently the subject of speculation.
After that shocking Butler loss, the season was lost in a haze of missed assignments, questionable effort and missed field goals.
OFFENSE (Grade: D+)
Pelini brought in five transfers with FBS credentials to give the Penguins’ offense a shot in the arm in quarterback Montgomery VanGorder (Notre Dame), right tackle Charles Baldwin (Alabama/Kansas), Zach Farrar (Oklahoma) and tight ends Kierre Hawkins (Ohio State) and Charles Reeves (Pittsburgh).
The results were all over the place.
VanGorder regressed as the season went on. Baldwin started nine of 11 games. Farrar was completely phased out of the offense by the end of the year after a promising start. Hawkins was injured and Reeves was a bust.
Overall, the difference between YSU and Missouri State for being the worst scoring offense in the MVFC is 0.1 points per game going in the Penguins favor at 23.1 points per game.
The Penguins were the conference’s worst team in the red zone, scoring on 29 of 42 trips. That breaks down to four missed field goals, two lost fumbles, two interceptions, four turnovers on downs and one failed trip classified as “other” by the league. Some of that can be attributed to poor special teams play, but outside of running back Tevin McCaster, the offense was a disappointment.
Who’s gone: Montgomery VanGorder.
Who’s back: Nathan Mays, Joe Craycraft, Jayden Cunningham, Conor Collins, Mitch Davidson.
VanGorder couldn’t hack it in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Through the Penguins’ first three games, the Notre Dame transfer looked like everything the team wanted under center: he avoided sacks and turnovers while making YSU’s deep ball a credible threat. It didn’t hold up. After a record-setting outing in a 45-38 loss to Western Illinois, he didn’t throw more than one TD pass in a game for the rest of the season and never had his completion percentage go above 60 percent. He had seven touchdown passes and nine picks in conference play while getting sacked 11 times. This came after throwing six TD passes with one pick and a sack through the first three games, two of which were against scholarship-bereft Pioneer League teams. Mays finished this year as the team’s second-leading rusher despite appearing in just four games while dealing with various injuries. He can clearly help the team when called upon, but his health is always going to be a question mark with his playing style. YSU using at least two QBs in 2019 looks like a given.
Who’s gone: Tevin McCaster.
Who’s back: Christian Turner, Braxton Chapman, London Pearson, Dra Rushton, Joe Alessi, Randy Smith.
McCaster was 10th nationally in rushing yards with 1,235, making him one of just 24 players in FCS football to clear 1,000 yards rushing at the end of the regular season. It’s hard to complain about that sort of production. His excellence meant a monopoly on carries, with his 269 touches dwarfing Christian Turner’s 39 as the next closest back. Turner’s sophomore season only had one trip to the end zone, but he did lead the team in receptions and 8.2 yards a catch and 4.7 yards a carry aren’t bad numbers.
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
Who’s gone: WR: Nobody; TE: Chris Durkin, Charles Reeves
Who’s back: WR: Zach Farrar, Darius Shackleford, Kendric Mallory, Samuel St. Surin, Markel Toney, Jake Coates, Jeremiah Braswell, Jake Cummings, Jared Fabry, Zack Torbert, Natavious Payne, Thomas Joffray, Michael Diaz, Ryan Emans, Colby Cooper, Michael Belcik; TE: Kierre Hawkins, Jake Benio, Josh Burgett.
Seven different receivers caught at least 10 passes in 2018, but none of the above players performed consistently well over the course of the season. Farrar’s six-catch, 135-yard outing in a 52-17 loss to West Virginia marks the only 100-plus yard effort by a receiver of any type. He was the team’s second-leading receiver at the end of the year despite not playing in the final five games of the year. YSU carried three tight ends who previously played for FBS teams, but it was Joiner, a recruit who played just two years of high school football, who proved to be the best of the bunch. Despite catching just 12 passes, he turned that into 202 yards and a team-best four touchdowns. Hawkins, Durkin and Burgess each caught one pass as the latter two players were mostly relegated to blocking duty. Hawkins, an Ohio State transfer, sat most of the season with a knee injury. Reeves, who came to Youngstown this fall from Pitt, didn’t play a single offensive snap as he left midway through the season.
Who’s gone: Gavin Wiggins, Connor Sharp, Vitas Hrynkiewicz, Charles Baldwin.
Who’s back: Henry Yobue, Aaron Ervin, Norman Fox, Logan Creek, Brandon Finamore, Zachary Hauschild, Devon Robinson, Todd Brothers, Jacob Zinni, Mike McAllister, Dan Becker, James Wilson, Casey Baker.
The o-line had two goals for 2018, cut down on sacks allowed and lead the MVFC in rushing. The former came true and the latter did not. The Penguins cut their sacks allowed total from 36 to 19 this year and is a decent show of improvement. YSU’s 1,967 rushing yards rank sixth in the conference and the line deserves credit for allowing McCaster to be one of the nation’s top running backs. The starting five of Becker, Wiggins, Hrynkiewicz, Sharp and Baldwin stayed mostly intact for the season, the only hiccups coming with Baldwin conceding two starts at right tackle to Devon Robinson and Wiggins moving to left tackle for the final two games of the seasons, where he performed really well in a 31-10 win against Northern Iowa on Nov. 10. There’s not too much to criticize with this group, but it’s a shame the o-line has so little to show for its efforts.
DEFENSE (Grade: C-)
After starting the year behind the eight ball thanks to season-ending injuries in fall camp to defensive end Justus Reed and safety Kyle Hegedus, the final numbers say YSU was close to middle of the road on defense. The Penguins ranked sixth out of 10 in the conference in scoring defense, sixth in rushing defense and fourth in passing defense. There were a few decent games, but there were some howlers against Butler, Indiana State, South Dakota State and Illinois State to offset them.
Who’s gone: Justus Reed, Tyler Sims, Johnson Louigene, Savon Smith, Lamont Ragland, Tommy McCraw.
Who’s back: Antoine Cook, Ma’Lik Richmond, Shereif Bynum, DeMarko Craig Jr., Justin Metzel, Vinny Gentile, Steven Pappadakes, Derek Hite, Wesley Thompson, Fred Hicks, Donovan Turney, Dontae Cilenti, Will Henry, James Jackson, Ronald Williams.
YSU used every combination of five different defensive ends to make up for Reed’s absence. Bynum’s 11.5 tackles for a loss and four sacks made him stand out from that group, but most of that production was in the first half of the season. He had no sacks and 3.5 tackles for a loss in YSU’s last six games. Defensive tackle Savon Smith had a team-best six sacks and was the only player whom Pelini said he didn’t have to question his effort as the season unraveled. The d-line wasn’t bad and had some bright moments, but Reed was missed.
Who’s gone: Armand Dellovade.
Who’s back: Cash Mitchell, Malachai Newell, Ray Anderson, Devon McNutt, Brandon Williams, Myles McHaney, Christiaan Randall-Posey, Taymer Graham, Curtis Parks, Jaylen Hewlett, Griffin Hoak, Mike Clendenning, Patrick Minenok.
Consider this the Dellovade appreciation space. His 102 tackles lead the whole defense by a healthy distance and he had 67 more than the next linebacker, Mitchell. A neck injury to Randall-Posey and a targeting suspension to Mitchell opened the door for Anderson to get starts. No matter who was paired with Dellovade this year, he carried this unit.
Who’s gone: Will Latham, DeShon Taylor, Avery Larkin, Chrispin Lee, Donovan McWilson,
Who’s back: Jakkar Jackson, Devanere Crenshaw, Bryce Gibson, Kyle Hegedus, LaQuan White, Terray Bryant, Jaelin Madison, Darius Hall, Melvin Jackson, Paul French, DJ Smalls, Mike Nash, Alec Burzynski, Sam McGuigan, Vinny Fiorenza, Daniel Kwarteng, Adam Allen, Ethan Dominguez, Jonah Spencer.
When looking at two of YSU’s worst losses this year, Butler and Indiana State, the common denominator was an opponent that found success through the air. Whether it was a death by numerous short passes against Butler or deep routes from Indiana State, the secondary got beat. After season-ending injuries to safeties Hegedus and Taylor, it took a few tries to find the right pair of players who could step in. Once the Penguins settled with Larkin and Lee near the end of the season, things calmed down, but the damage was done.
Who’s gone: Zak Kennedy, Steven Wethli.
Who’s back: Mark Schuler, Grant Gonya, Colin Burdette, Nick DeSalvo.
Zak Kennedy was the MVFC’s second-worst kicker in terms of accuracy and range last year before bottoming out this year. He went 5 for 12 before getting benched for Gonya, but came back and finished the year 8 for 15. Kennedy is a senior and as a Cardinal Mooney graduate, he’s been kicking in Stambaugh Stadium for several years. Those numbers are abysmal and he wasn’t attempting 50-plus yard field goals, a good amount of his attempts were in the low 40s and high 30s. Christian Turner’s 76-yard kickoff return against Western Illinois was the only highlight for the return unit. Schuler had 40 percent of his 55 punts down opponents inside their 20 and cleared 50 yards on kicks six times, sparing this unit an F.
COACHING (Grade: D+)
What makes YSU’s 2018 season so frustrating is the sense that the Penguins’ failure to reach the postseason wasn’t for a lack of talent, but not playing to its full abilities consistently. This sub-.500 side beat a playoff-bound Northern Iowa and played competitively against No. 1 North Dakota State when the team had nothing to play for. Give some credit to Pelini and the coaching staff for not letting the team tank after the Indiana State loss effectively ruined their postseason hopes.
Pelini repeatedly cited missed assignments and mental errors for the team’s woes and as the head coach, he should take responsibility for a losing season. The question is how much?
The coaching staff lost defensive coordinator Carl Pelini and offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery as they took FBS jobs last offseason. Defensive line coach Donald D’Alesio and defensive backs coach Richard McNutt combined to replace Carl Pelini. D’Alesio was a first-time coordinator after spending his entire coaching career at YSU since his playing days ended after the 2014 season. Wideouts coach Brian Crist took over for Montgomery as all three coaches were promoted from within.
Pelini stood by the trio throughout the season, but some of the team’s woes fell into their jurisdiction.
How much culpability does Crist have for VanGorder’s regression and the offense’s red zone issues? At 27 years old, is D’Alesio too young to be a coordinator in the toughest conference in FCS football? Given the issues the Penguins had at safety heading into the season, how severe was the impact of McNutt’s paid leave and eventual three-game suspension as the university probed an April domestic incident? Those are all tough to answer individually, but collectively points to a staff that took a step backward after the shakeup.
YSU’s handling of McNutt was sloppy. He gets served divorce papers and a restraining order on campus in February, has a domestic incident that involved the Canfield police in April and the university waits until August to investigate the matter — and it looks like it did due to news of the controversy involving former Ohio State assistant coach Zach Smith’s domestic violence issues emerging. YSU needs a better place to take its cues to act from than national media.
But back to Bo, his future is murky with his contract set to expire in February. The sense around YSU is that he can continue coaching the Penguins if he wants to and that’s a reasonable position. Even with no playoff appearances since the 2016 national championship, if the university is looking for somebody to try to keep things steady while chasing the postseason, Pelini is good for that. If YSU were to tell Pelini no thanks, it’s almost guaranteed the next coach won’t have credentials as good as his.
That said, should he return in 2019, Pelini and the entire staff have to produce better results.