End of year thoughts on YSU football
YOUNGSTOWN — There’s no doubt Youngstown State’s season reached a disappointing conclusion when the Penguins were left out of the FCS postseason.
But make no mistake — the 2022 campaign was a much, much needed step forward for the program under Doug Phillips.
After winning a combined four games in the 2021 seasons — the spring COVID-19 season and then the regular Fall 2021 season — the Penguins went 7-4 after getting off to a 2-3 start.
With that finish, YSU has to feel it has positive energy in the program entering another critical offseason.
Here are some major takeaways from this year’ campaign:
Switching to Davidson
Let’s begin with one of the most obvious points. Any midseason change at quarterback is a gamble, but Phillips and Co. got this one right.
The offense was one-dimensional through four games, due in large part to the inaccuracy of former starter Demeatric Crenshaw. Davidson, however, completed 119 of 201 passes (59 percent) and was able to stretch the field with deep passes to Bryce Oliver and the other receivers. He racked up 1,613 yards and 12 touchdowns.
He also won five of his seven starts, and YSU averaged 31.4 points per game during that stretch.
But perhaps the biggest impact his rise to the starting spot provided was taking pressure off All-American tailback Jaleel McLaughlin. With defenses forced to respect YSU’s passing game, McLaughlin’s numbers saw a slight uptick. Through the first four games, McLaughlin averaged 129.5 yards per game. In the final seven, that jumped to just over 185 yards per game, and that stretch included three performances of 200-plus yards.
Davidson now enters a critical offseason in which he’ll look to take further steps forward as the signal-caller, but with a full offseason, he may be poised for even brighter days ahead.
The defense improved
The Penguins’ defense was a bright spot this season after a poor 2021 showing. Credit to first-year defensive coordinator Jahmal Brown there.
YSU finished with the No. 4 scoring defense in the Missouri Valley at 25.4 points per game and the No. 5 total defense at 354.1 yards per game.
For comparison’s sake, the Penguins were 10th of 11 Valley teams in 2021 in scoring defense at 34.3 points per game and last in total defense at 455.8 yards per game.
Perhaps the most noticeable jump was in YSU’s ability to force negative plays. The Penguins finished 25th in the FCS in TFLs, and were fourth in the Valley in sacks.
The run defense was especially stout, ranking third in the Valley at just 120.2 yards per game.
Most of that credit belongs to the defensive line, which took a tremendous step forward from 2021.
Then, too, the YSU defense had moments where it kept the team in games until the offense could muster late rallies. Look at Illinois State and Southern Illinois as prime examples.
YSU will miss McLaughlin
This is stating the obvious, but there may not be a tailback of McLaughlin’s caliber at YSU for a long time, if ever.
Dubbed “The Eraser” for his ability to run by mistakes teammates made, McLaughlin’s breakaway speed made him a home run threat on any given play.
Simply put, I don’t think it’s going to be possible to truly replace a tailback of McLaughlin’s caliber, and it’s likely the Penguins will fill that production by committee moving forward. At the very least, it will be tough to find someone with the elusiveness and speed McLaughlin featured.
All of that is to say: Davidson’s growth at quarterback will be pivotal, because in some ways, YSU will need to reinvent itself, or at least adjust to life without an All-American at running back.
Recruiting will start to show
It’s now been three seasons under Phillips, and we’re entering a stretch now where his staff’s recruiting and player development — things Phillips touts as YSU’s identity as a program — will really come to the surface.
That was already starting to come true this season, as YSU’s improved depth paid dividends down the stretch when key starters like Griffin Hoak and Latrell Fordham missed games to injury.
Now, we’ll see if those young depth players that ascend the depth chart have been developed fully, and if the YSU staff has recruited well enough to keep the depth rolling.