Curbstone: YSU, Phillips look to earn team’s first playoff bid since 2016

BEAVER TOWNSHIP — Fresh off its 48-28 victory over Robert Morris this past weekend, head coach Doug Phillips’ Youngstown State team will take a 2-1 mark into Missouri Valley Football Conference play, which begins this week when the Penguins travel to Northern Iowa to take on the Panthers.

The next eight weeks will determine if the Penguins are worthy of a playoff bid, a void on the program’s resume since the 2016 campaign.

“We cannot allow ourselves to have other people control our outcomes. Each and every day we have control of how hard we play, the attitude in which we play and our execution on the football field,” Phillips told the Curbstone Coaches during Monday’s luncheon meeting at Avion Banquet Center. “We say practice execution becomes game reality, knowing that if we can do it in practice then we can take that into the game. If we can do everything in the game, whether it is effort, attitude, physicality or execution on Saturdays, then we’re taking care of business and it won’t have to go to a committee. We (will) have earned it.

“Our kids don’t take anything for granted. There are no second chances in life and you are guaranteed so many games each season with each one just as important as the next one. You cannot lose sight of the game you are playing each week, and for us, it is about how we prepare, how we get ready for those games and ultimately how we perform in those games.”

Comparisons aren’t always fair, yet the fact remains that YSU’s showing at Ohio State, a 35-7 loss on October 9, was more challenging to the Buckeyes than former Ohio Valley Conference foe Western Kentucky’s 63-10 thrashing last Saturday.

“The one thing I was proud of was that our kids weren’t happy coming out of the Ohio State game,” Phillips said. “Everyone says great effort, you played physical, but our kids will tell you that is the standard and expectation. If you are getting on the field, then you better play hard and be physical for four quarters.

“We need to clean up the mistakes we made because we’ve left a lot on the field. I think our kids know that you have got to make plays and communicate when your number is called. Defensively, we cannot give up the explosive plays that we gave up, so that was a great learning experience. It’s about the process so getting back to work and having a great Tuesday practice and then a great Wednesday practice.

“The mantra for us, the players will tell you, is we haven’t earned anything yet. When you have that mentality you go out each day trying to earn that and every Saturday you get the opportunity to do just that. Our focus is each week — who is the next opponent and focusing on what we have to do in order for us to be successful on Saturday afternoon and our current focus is solely on Northern Iowa.”

Now in his fourth season, Phillips is excited about this team’s prospects.

“I think it has been a process,” he said. “A lot of these young men played in that very first game at North Dakota State on February 21, 2020. Many were on the offensive line. So for me, they have gone through the highs and lows of being a part of the process and have figured it out. They’ve worked hard to try to put a great product on the field so this community and university can be proud.”

Phillips and his staff are quite proud of three former Penguins — Jaleel McLaughlin, Mike McAllister and Drew Ogletree — each of whom is currently on an NFL active roster or practice squad.

In fact, McLaughlin’s five-yard touchdown scamper this past Sunday scored the Denver Broncos’ first points of the game against the Washington Commanders.

“You are always proud of your former players and what they stood for in our program,” Phillips said. “Jaleel was one of those overachievers. Everything he did from the mental aspect of the game — the focus training, we just knew that if he had the right opportunity that he would take and make the most of it.

“I’m also proud of Mike McAllister, who was a walk-on here and made the (Los Angeles) Rams’ practice squad. Both of those guys were captains on last year’s team. We also have Drew Ogletree with the Indianapolis Colts.

“Last week, we had five scouts on the field, and there is a reason why they come through here. It is because we have tough, hard-nosed, hardworking kids who, if they aren’t drafted, still receive the opportunity to make a roster.”

While Phillips hasn’t relied on the portal, that part of the game has still helped the team over the past several seasons.

“As for the portal, we’re still a developmental program, meaning we’re going to recruit offensive linemen who when they come to us might be 6-foot-6 and weigh 230 pounds,” Phillips said. “But in two years, they will be 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds. We hang our hat on that, but the portal for us is almost like free agency.

“If we feel that a position group, if we need to go out and get an older guy, which was the case with Marcus Hooker and the fact that he was from New Castle helped, we look at that. R.J. Johnson came three years ago from Duquesne, but he played at Euclid High School. That close proximity, being a Midwesterner and (being) close to Youngstown, we have a little bit more familiarity with them helps.”

Next Monday, the Curbstone Coaches will honor the 2023 YSU tennis Horizon League champions.


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