YSU blows 28-point lead, falls to WIU, 38-35
YOUNGSTOWN — After its most dominant half of the Doug Phillips era, Youngstown State followed with perhaps its worst.
Behind a bulldozing ground game, the Penguins built a 28-point lead in the first half, only to watch that advantage evaporate by the end of the third quarter as Western Illinois rattled off 31 unanswered points and capped its comeback with a 20-yard field goal from Mason Laramie with 5 seconds to play to seal its 38-35 victory in each team’s Missouri Valley Football Conference opener.
It marked the second season in a row the Penguins let a lead slip to the Leathernecks. During the spring campaign, YSU led by 11 in the second half before WIU rallied for a 27-24 win in Macomb.
“The hardest thing is once you lose momentum, how do you get it back? We talk to the guys all the time that your measurement is not when things are going well, but when things go tough, how do you bounce back and get things back on a roll?” a somber Phillips said. “We couldn’t figure that out. That starts with me as the head football coach and stems down to our assistants. We’re still growing, and we have to get better.”
Western Illinois (1-3, 1-0) began its rally with a touchdown with just seven seconds remaining in the first half, as Connor Sampson found Mason Sikes for a 7-yard strike to bring WIU within 21.
Then, out of the break, YSU (1-2, 0-1) imploded. Western Illinois rattled off 21 points in the third quarter to tie the game, and then used a massive stop late in the fourth to set up its game-winning score.
Facing a 4th-and-1 at its own 36 with under 2 minutes to play, Phillips first elected to try a fake punt, and it appeared as though the Penguins picked it up. However, WIU got off a last-second timeout before the ball was snapped.
Out of that timeout, YSU handed the ball to Jaleel McLaughlin, but the tailback was stuffed short of the line to gain, handing the ball to Western Illinois with 1:49 to play. The Leathernecks moved the ball to the YSU 5 and took the clock down to 5 seconds before Laramie sank the go-ahead field goal.
Of his decision to roll the dice, Phillips said, “You have to be aggressive. At the time, we weren’t having any momentum. I do trust our offensive line and running back and quarterback, who had big chunks of yardage in the first half, to get us that extra yardage for the first down, but we didn’t. That’s a call I make. Did it cost us? Yeah, it goes back (to WIU), and we gave them great field position to make that field goal.”
And though that fourth-down decision will receive focus, YSU’s run game after the intermission did the Penguins no favors either.
After gashing the Leathernecks for 236 yards in the first half, YSU was kept to just 62 in the second. Jaleel McLaughlin and Demeatric Crenshaw racked up 108 and 104 yards apiece in the game’s first two quarters, but were held to 136 and 134 by game’s end. McLaughlin and Crenshaw scored three and two touchdowns, respectively, but they all came before halftime.
“I think they started to put more guys in the box (in the second half), but we still have to work our way,” McLaughlin said.
Phillips said WIU “made adjustments, and we didn’t,” and added that the Penguins will continue to face stacked boxes until they’re able to develop a passing game that provides downfield threats. Crenshaw was kept to 76 yards passing on a 13-for-22 night. He was also picked off once, which set up WIU’s second touchdown of the third quarter.
“And those were mostly just hitting curls and hitches in the flats,” Phillips said of the passing yardage. “We have to be able to hit some passes downfield. Until we do that, we’re going to face a lot of teams that will put nine in the box to stop the run.”
After stymying WIU’s offense before halftime, YSU’s defense began giving up chunk plays, too. Sampson was 14-for-21 for 146 yards and two touchdowns before the intermission, and finished 33-for-48 for 316 yards and four touchdowns.
Dennis Houston grabbed nine of Sampson’s passes for 110 yards and a score, while Tony Tate had eight receptions for 71 yards.
WIU also connected on a trick play, as Tate executed a jet sweep pass to Ludovick Choquette that brought the score to 35-21 in the third.
“Going in, we said we needed to limit their big plays — not eliminate, just limit,” Phillips said. “I thought we did that in the first half, and then in the second, those big plays kept adding up.”
The conference slate doesn’t ease from here, either. YSU travels to Cedar Falls, Iowa, next week for a date with the No. 17 Northern Iowa Panthers, who are coming off a bye week.
“We have to get back to work and continue to find ways, because it doesn’t get easier,” Phillips said. “In this league, you have to be ready to go in seven days to play football against another good opponent, and we have to get back to work to correct those mistakes.”