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Youngstown State eliminated from playoffs

Villanova cruises by Penguins 45-28

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes Youngstown State defensive lineman Devin Lee sits on the field following the Penguins’ loss at Villanova in the second round of the FCS playoffs.

VILLANOVA, Pa. — The issues that have plagued Youngstown State on both sides of the ball reared their ugly head for one last time this season.

Villanova was able to take advantage of YSU’s miscues to outclass the Penguins 45-28 on Saturday in the second round of the FCS playoffs.

YSU ends its season 8-5 after making the postseason for the first time since 2016.

“When you’re in the playoffs, unless you win it all, it’s going to be a tough loss,” head coach Doug Phillips said. “If there’s any finger pointing, you can blame me, and there are areas we gotta be better at — we gotta be more disciplined, and we gotta find ways to be more disciplined in situations. … I thought (Villanova) did a great job with their run game, pass game, defensively in coverages and getting our quarterback out of the pocket.”

Offensively, the Wildcats set the tone early and often. On its opening drive, despite being backed up at its own 12, Villanova gashed the Penguins with three runs of 18-plus yards to set up its first touchdown.

Even though YSU finished 4-for-4 in the red zone, the Penguins settled for field goals on two of those trips into scoring territory, including one in the first quarter that was set up by Alex Howard’s interception of Villanova quarterback Connor Watkins.

The Wildcats, however, were 5-for-5 in the red zone and finished off all but one of those possessions with touchdowns.

The primary reason for that was Villanova’s dominance in the trenches. Both teams have run-first offensive philosophies, and the Wildcats controlled things along both the offensive and defensive lines. Villanova outgained YSU 191-82 in the run game.

“I thought they were more physical than us,” Phillips said. “We needed to win up front, and I thought they won up front with their D-line, front seven and offensive line.”

Villanova head coach Mark Ferrante said after the game that the Wildcats added additional quarterback run packages into their offense ahead of this week’s matchup. Watkins finished with nine carries for 56 yards and two touchdowns, while also completing 12 of his 21 passes for 275 yards and a touchdown to go with his pick.

“I thought their quarterback did a tremendous job when he pulled it to run,” Phillips said. “There’s some mistakes we made that need (to be) corrected. We need to do a great job, starting with me, as coaches to put our players in the best situation to be successful. When you get a loss like that, it’s going to sit hard on my shoulders because I want to put our kids in the best situation. We didn’t put them in the best situation in this football game.”

YSU took its first and only lead at the start of the second quarter when Mitch Davidson found Joey Farthing all alone behind the defense on fourth down for a 34-yard touchdown strike that put the Penguins up 10-7.

But after the Wildcats quickly retook the lead just two minutes later, YSU found itself faced with a fourth-and-2 at the opposing 35-yard line. Despite going for it on fourth down earlier in the game, the Penguins elected to punt.

Even though they pinned Villanova at its own three yard line, the Wildcats needed just four plays to go 97 yards and take a 21-10 lead. It was a key swing in the game, as the Penguins would never recover from that double-digit deficit from there on out.

“Early, we went for a fourth down and I felt really good — practice execution becomes game reality,” Phillips said. “We had a chance to get the first down (on the previous play) and we didn’t execute. So for me, you gotta take care of the defense.

“At times, we’re going to go for it and be aggressive on fourth down, but there’s also times where we had an opportunity on third down to get the first down and we didn’t. At that point of the game, I wanted to really take care of the defense and pin them back and try to get a three-and-out and get the ball back on the 40. Unfortunately, they had different plans.”

With the Penguins trailing and Villanova taking away YSU’s run game, it forced them to take to the air to try to throw their way back into the game.

The Penguins were able to add two late scores to their tally, as Davidson hit Luke Hensley and Farthing in the end zone for touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

In the final game of his Penguins career, Davidson was 27-for-44 for 287 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Davidson ends his career with 3,088 passing yards, the school record for a single season.

“We have a lot of young guys and one thing I wanted to mention when we were in the locker room, these guys (like Davidson) have set that foundation,” Phillips said. “Now it’s those young guys that really gotta take it to the next level.”

nmadhavan@tribtoday.com

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