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Penguins look toward the future

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes Villanova quarterback Connor Watkins plunges in for a touchdown while Youngstown State’s Quincy Lenton tries to bring him down during the first half.

VILLANOVA, Pa. — After some down years, Youngstown State made a resurgence this year as a program.

Since their last FCS playoffs appearance in 2016, the Penguins had gone 27-35 over six years coming into this season.

Despite ending its season Saturday with a 45-28 defeat at Villanova, YSU is starting to get back on track after finishing the 2023 season with eight wins, its most since that magical playoff run seven years ago.

“I’m glad I was able to be a part of setting that foundation to get us back on track,” running back Dra Rushton said after Saturday’s loss. “I can’t wait to see what the future ‘Guins do.”

The Penguins have slowly risen back to prominence since Doug Phillips took over the program in 2020.

They started with just one win during the shortened spring COVID season in 2020, then followed that up with three wins in 2021 and seven wins last year, before doing what they did this year.

“It’s special,” linebacker Alex Howard said. “I’ve been here five years and each year just got better and better, and finally, we made the playoffs.”

But the work doesn’t end here. While some of the upperclassmen will graduate and move on, Phillips hopes the taste of success this season fuels the fire for the underclassmen to continue to build on what the Penguins have accomplished.

“I found out that we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Phillips said. “That’s going to start in the offseason — we’ve gotta get back in the weight room, we gotta get bigger, we gotta get stronger. We gotta assess what we need to do to take that next step, not only against Villanova, but in the Missouri Valley to beat the Dakotas.

“I gotta look at my roster. I gotta see where we need to improve. Then, get back in the weight room, spring ball and get ready to come back here to be a better prepared team. And it’s gotta be a better-coached team starting with me.”

HOMETOWN HERO

Rushton bided his time behind several tailbacks for several seasons, before finally getting to share duties as the featured back with Tyshon King in YSU’s backfield this year.

In his first five years with the Penguins, the Liberty product had run for 387 yards and two touchdowns on 87 carries. Then, this season he culminated his YSU career with 664 yards and nine touchdowns

“I’m a hometown guy, so to be able to have a career in front of all my friends and family and my whole support system, it’s been special,” Rushton said. “You don’t want to go out this way (with a loss), you want to go and be in Frisco and have a party there. But again, just being able to set that foundation and be part of a great team, behind some great running backs like Jaleel McLaughlin, Christian Turner, Joe Alessi — those guys taught me a lot, not even about football, but just life. So it’s been special here.”

He and King were a formidable one-two punch in the Penguins’ backfield this year.

Along with Rushton’s career year, King topped 1,000 yards for the season in YSU’s loss to VIllanova. He finished the season with 1,011 yards and nine touchdowns and earned a spot on the MVFC All-Newcomer team.

FLYING FARTHING

In high school at Dover, redshirt freshman receiver Joey Farthing was a track and basketball star. He only played football for one season, his senior year, but it was enough to earn him a shot to play college football at Youngstown State.

At 6-foot-5, Farthing has all the tools to be an elite, dynamic receiver, but he’s still raw, being so new to football.

“We knew he could jump and we knew he could run,” Phillips said. “That’s why they put C on our chest to teach him how to run routes and catch footballs.”

Those tools were on full display Saturday against the Wildcats, as Farthing caught four passes for 73 yards and two touchdowns — all career highs. Four of his nine total receptions this season have gone for touchdowns.

“For him to make the plays he has made for us this year — his future’s so bright,” Phillips said.

RIVALRY RENEWED

Saturday marked the 10th time that YSU and Villanova have met on the gridiron and the first time since 1999.

With this being his 37th year at Villanova, Wildcats head coach Mark Ferrante was a part of all four of the teams’ meetings during the 1990s.

“I figured someone might bring that up because I’ve been here that long,” Ferrante said after his team’s victory over the Penguins. “We’ve had some really good games against those guys. This is a different time, different era, different group and different team.”

This matchup is also unique because even before the FCS playoffs bracket was revealed two weeks ago, YSU and Villanova announced the scheduling of a home-and-home series with the Wildcats back in February.

YSU will travel back to eastern Pennsylvania to face Villanova to open its season Aug. 29 next fall, before hosting the Wildcats at Stambaugh Stadium in 2027.

“That’s the interesting part — we scheduled them prior to meeting them in this matchup,” Ferrante said. “So we’ll each have film on each other. But we’ll worry about it next fall.”

nmadhavan@tribtoday.com

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