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Improving Penguins come off idle week

YOUNGSTOWN — The gradual improvement is evident to Youngstown State coach Doug Phillips — and probably any fan of YSU.

Every time the Penguins have played a football game this spring season, a young, inexperienced team has taken major strides. That’s part of the reason the cancellation of their game last week was so disappointing to Phillips and his players.

“We would rather play,” Phillips said. “We get better when we do play. So, if we had to choose, our young men would say they would rather have played Saturday. All the coaches would have rather played, but it’s something you deal with. You focus on the things you can control. We can’t control that, so we made the necessary adjustments and moved forward.”

The pandemic demands such adjustments.

YSU (1-4, 1-4 Missouri Valley Football Conference) is moving on from what was a big matchup with No. 6 North Dakota after the Fighting Hawks had a positive COVID-19 test and subsequent contact tracing within their team. The last-minute cancellation was disappointing as the Penguins were coming off their first win and had momentum as they prepared for another high-ranked team. The challenge now is to not let the positive vibes within the team dwindle.

Next up is winless Western Illinois (0-5). It’s the first night game of the season as game time is set for 8 p.m. Eastern in Macomb, Illinois. And while the Leathernecks may be winless, the Penguins say every team in the MVFC is formidable.

“(Coach Phillips) has emphasized that they’ve been pretty close in most of their games,” offensive lineman Derek Hite said. “We’re approaching it like we have any other week. It’s not going to be easy. No game in this conference is easy, obviously. Everyone knows that. We’re just going to have to have a great week of practice, preparation and then go in there and approach it just like we did against South Dakota.”

The 28-10 victory over South Dakota was the first of the season for the Penguins, who had played toe-to-toe with everyone on their schedule — four of the five were ranked in the top 11 in the nation.

The biggest reasons for YSU’s progress has been the running game and the development of the offensive line. Running back Jaleel McLaughlin is second in the conference in rushing yards (469) and touchdowns (4). A team that couldn’t protect its quarterback nor run the ball is doing both, and in doing so is controlling the tempo of the game and creating an identity. With a young defense that has been consistent all season, the Penguins may have found a winning formula.

“Each week, especially after that win, our confidence has just grown, which has been big for us,” Hite said. “(The linemen are) all young, and we’re just getting into the feel of actually playing together, so it’s definitely helped.

“Obviously (McLaughlin) is an incredible player,” he later added. “We love blocking for him. Our confidence, as it grows each week, it’s giving him more confidence. And he makes some amazing plays, which makes us look good, but it’s definitely fun blocking for him.”

The defense deserves just as much credit for the improved play.

YSU, which lost in the final minute against No. 8 South Dakota State on March 13 and nearly pulled off an upset over No. 11 Southern Illinois the week before, is second in the conference in pass defense. The run defense is seventh, but it’s coming off a game in which it held South Dakota to 12 yards on the ground. A young secondary has blossomed quickly, and linebackers Grant Dixon and Griffin, who didn’t have any experience playing together prior to this season, are becoming leaders for the Penguins.

“They’re getting better at just making sure they’re understanding the defense,” Phillips said of the linebackers. “It’s one thing to play hard but not make the proper run fits, but what we’ve seen the last two to three weeks is now they’re really understanding (defensive coordinator Joe) Schaefer and (linebackers coach Bryan) Nardo, in where they need to fit. Now you put that in with play-hard, and you’re finding out that they’re around the football a lot, and if you’re around the football, you can be productive and make plays, whether they’re sacks, fumble recoveries or getting interceptions. But the thing I love about those two is they’re play-hard guys.”

That “play-hard” attitude seems to be contagious.

Both the offense and the defense are showing exponential growth, and when one isn’t playing well, the other side of the ball usually responds. That complementary football is part of a chemistry YSU has been forming under Phillips.

“I think you can tell when you walk into a locker room whether there’s a brotherhood or a team,” Phillips said. “We’ve seen that. We have a leadership council that the players voted on, with different kids from different classes. We meet every Monday, and those guys are part of the decision making. It’s their team. I don’t get to play on Saturdays. They do, so we want them to buy in and to feel empowered to help with those decisions, whether it’s making a schedule, how we travel, how we eat to what uniforms we wear. I enjoy those meetings every Monday with that group. They represent the whole (team), but when you go in the locker room, that’s where you can see (the chemistry).”

It’s starting to show on the field.

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