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Some good, some bad after Penguins loss at Northern Iowa

AS great as the Youngstown State football team looked through four games, there were reasons to hesitate before lauding them a playoff team.

A somewhat soft non-conference schedule allowed for a mostly dominant start — with YSU winning its first four games by 20 points or more.

Then came the Missouri Valley Football Conference opener Saturday, and the team that had been pushing teams around finally felt some push back. Now fans will see if they can get back up.

No. 13 Northern Iowa continued its home dominance of the Penguins, who have not won in Cedar Falls since 1999. The Panthers owned the first half, controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and exposing a secondary that has endured some ups and downs.

The biggest test of the season, to date, resulted in a 21-14 loss, but there are positives to take from it. A perennial playoff team like Northern Iowa usually plays fundamentally sound football, and in doing so, they show a team like YSU what areas it needs need to improve. There are plenty.

As usual, the game starts up front. An offensive line that had been the catalyst for the highest-scoring team in the conference (averaging 44.5 points per game before Saturday) was thrashed by an impressive front four of UNI. The Penguins allowed just two sacks in their first four games, but the Panthers racked up six on Saturday.

They pounded quarterback Nathan Mays to the point he was injured late in the fourth quarter after being sandwiched by two linemen on a sack. Losing Mays, who was on crutches afterward, would be a huge blow for the Penguins. The senior has been excellent as a player and a leader. While some fans may be clamoring to see true freshman and former Girard star Mark Waid, Mays is the best guy to be under center right now. Joe Craycraft is the first backup and is a capable QB, but he doesn’t bring the same poise and moxie as Mays.

If the line doesn’t improve, it won’t matter who’s throwing the ball. After averaging a league-high 296.2 yards rushing per game, YSU had just 55 Saturday. Their offense is built on running the football, so that must improve. Given the line’s success earlier in the season, and the fact that UNI’s front four is one of the best in the MVFC (maybe the nation), there’s a good chance the poor performance was more of an aberration than a sign of things to come.

Then there’s the defense. The knock on the ‘D’ coming in was an inconsistent secondary, and their issues were brought to the surface again Saturday. The Panthers converted on numerous third-and-long situations (obvious passing downs), and YSU again struggled against bigger receivers, something that has been a problem in several games.

Again, while there are issues, they’re not glaring. The secondary played better in the second half. The line did as well (mostly in the run game), and maybe of most importance, the Penguins responded well when faced with adversity — something they’ve done all season.

YSU trailed, 21-7, at halftime. Its lone score came on a busted coverage. Other than that, they were whipped for two quarters. They came out in the second half and calmly drove 75 yards for a score to get right back in the game. The offense showed a rhythm for much of the half, and the defense didn’t allow another point. All that takes unity to accomplish.

So while YSU has some areas to address, this team continues to come together when nothing seems to be going right, and that trait is imperative for any football team. Now they need to take the step and start making plays at key moments. This is a relatively inexperienced team, so most of them are feeling the pressure and seeing the talent of the MVFC for the first time. That’s part of what made Saturday such an important game.

Yes, it was a loss, and a tough one considering the opportunity was there for a win, but the experience should go a long way for the Penguins. The sooner they realize they can compete with the best the conference has to offer, the sooner it will happen. Their confidence will grow with a big win, and YSU will have that chance Saturday against a South Dakota State team ranked third in the nation.