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Column: Some thoughts during YSU’s midseason bye

YOUNGSTOWN — Without a doubt, it’s been an up-and-down season for Youngstown State so far.

The Penguins sit at 2-3 overall and 1-2 in Missouri Valley Football Conference play, and are a disastrous second half against Western Illinois away from being above .500 instead. On the other hand, both wins are over teams currently in the FCS Top 25 — No. 18 Incarnate Word (who was receiving votes at the time of its matchup at YSU) and No. 20 Missouri State (who entered last week’s matchup at No. 15). Also, YSU received 20 votes in this week’s poll.

With the Penguins idle this week, here are some midseason thoughts as YSU gears up for the second half of the season.

Indiana State is a huge game

No, the Sycamores aren’t ranked, and no, they aren’t going to be in contention for the MVFC title this year. But if YSU wants to build on its big win over Missouri State, a victory in Terre Haute on Oct. 23 would go a long way.

ISU has been up and down this year, too, and is certainly a beatable opponent for the Penguins, as the Sycamores feature the 111th total offense and 70th total defense.

It also is potentially the last time YSU faces someone outside the Top 25, as the remaining games are against No. 7 South Dakota State, No. 22 North Dakota, No. 3 North Dakota State and No. 4 Southern Illinois.

The defense still needs to find answers

Let’s start with this: Forcing four turnovers was a key piece of last Saturday’s win over MSU, and it was an encouraging bit of progress. But, of the 123 FCS programs, this Penguin defense ranks 117th in total yardage and 107th in points allowed per game.

You can look at that in a couple ways. On one hand, all but one of the FCS offenses YSU has faced this year are in the top 35 in terms of total yardage. The exception to that is Northern Iowa, who sits at No. 73 but isn’t without playmakers.

However, that trend of facing some of the nation’s top offenses doesn’t end this season, as SDSU, NDSU and SIU all rank in the top 30.

If YSU is going to continue to give up the yardage and points it has, then continuing to force turnovers will be paramount to keeping the Penguins in games.

Connecting on deep passes may help stabilize YSU’s offense

Going deep and taking shots down the field won’t ever be the mainstay of this YSU offense, but adding them into the play calling against Missouri State proved to be worth it.

One of the issues YSU ran into in its losses to Western Illinois and Northern Iowa was the inability to stretch the field. That, in turn, allowed the opposing defenses to focus heavily on the Penguins’ usually potent run game.

Against Missouri State, however, YSU took some shots, and even connected on a 28-yard touchdown pass to Sam St. Surin in the first quarter.

Continuing to take — and connect on — those deep passes should help keep things opened up for Jaleen McLaughlin and the rest of YSU’s backfield, which ranks sixth in the FCS at 249 yards per game. That’s critical, as Youngstown State’s scoring goes as its run game does.

The offensive line took a step forward

It’s fair to say the front had a tough start to the year, but the Missouri State game was encouraging for YSU’s big men. The offensive line gave Demeatric Crenshaw time to work for a lot of Saturday afternoon, and also helped pave the way for YSU to hang 377 rushing yards on the Bears, who entered with a top 15 run defense.

If that progress can continue, YSU’s offense should really start to find a groove here in the second half of the year.

So did Demeatric Crenshaw

The redshirt freshman is still a work in progress — what redshirt freshman isn’t? — but like the linemen, YSU’s quarterback also took an encouraging step forward Saturday.

His passing numbers won’t wow anybody — 10-of-19 for 99 yards and two touchdowns — but being able to complete passes at varying lengths should help keep defenses honest and open up the run game for Crenshaw and his tailbacks.

Crenshaw, by the way, is the No. 17 rusher in the FCS at 487 yards. That equates to 97.4 yards per game, the 12th-highest average in the subdivision. McLaughlin, meanwhile, is the No. 5 leading rushing with 588 yards, and his 117.6 yards per game are the third-best average in the FCS.

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