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Setting the tone

Penguins dominate Duquesne to improve to 3-0

YSU QB #18 Mark Waid lunges into the end zone for a 1st Qt. TD against the Duquesne Dukes...by R. Michael Semple

YOUNGSTOWN — There were a lot of firsts taking place at Stambaugh Stadium on Saturday.

Former Youngstown State and NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski watched the Penguins live for the first time since he played back in the 1970s. A potential future YSU star scored his first touchdown, and most importantly, the Penguins started the season 3-0 for the first time in seven years.

Where they go from here is first and foremost to YSU coach Bo Pelini.

The Penguins dominated Duquesne, an FCS playoff team last year, for much of the game in a 34-14 victory in Youngstown.

They have now won each of their first three games by at least 20 points and will likely be ranked in the top 25 of the FCS rankings when they’re released Monday. All of that means very little to Pelini, who was a bit more pleased with the overall performance than he was after last week’s win, when he was “embarrassed,” but he still emphasized YSU must fix its flaws.

YSU's #80 Miles Joiner makes a pass reception as Dukes defender #24 Tim Lowery goes for the tackle...by R. Michael Semple

“We did a lot of good things,” he said. “We’ve still got a lot to clean up, but I thought we played good football. … We’re a work in progress.”

The progress is certainly showing.

The Penguins took a 21-0 lead with relative ease and again made key plays when the opponent started to grab the momentum and attempt a comeback.

The Dukes (1-1) made it 21-7 and were driving near midfield late in the second quarter. YSU linebacker Ray Anderson tipped a pass high into the air, and corner D.J. Smalls leaped and snagged the interception to keep YSU up by two touchdowns.

Duquesne took the opening drive of the second half to the Penguins’ 28-yard line, but as safety Kyle Hegedus tackled running back Mark Allen, he pried the ball loose, and YSU recovered. The Penguins scored on the next drive to essentially seal the victory.

YSU's #7 Bryce Gibson intercepts a Dukes pass as teammate #29 DJ Smalls follows the action...by R. Michael Semple

The defense caused three more turnovers, vaulting their total to 10 in three games. That’s one more than they had all of last season.

“We’ve just been emphasizing getting 11 hats to the ball — stripping it and just anything you can do to get your hands on the ball,” said corner Bryce Gibson, who also had a key interception, the first of his career, in the first half. “Something good’s going to happen if you flying to (the ball).”

The offense took a different route to success than the first two games.

The nation’s leading rushing attack got off to a slow start, but a trio of quarterbacks made up for it. Starter Nathan Mays continued his efficient play, completing 8-of-11 passes for 131 yards and zero interceptions. He also ran for 63 yards and one touchdown on 10 carries. Back-up Joe Craycraft attempted just one pass, but it went for a 31-yard TD to running back London Pearson, who was wide open out of the backfield.

Then there was the much-anticipated debut of true freshman Mark Waid, a 2019 Girard graduate who was a big signing for the Penguins and could be the quarterback of the future … and maybe the present. He was twice called upon in the red zone, scoring on a designed run from 6 yards out to put YSU up 7-0 and again from 1 yard away to increase the lead to 14-0.

It was a big moment for the local star.

“Growing up in this area and playing for Youngstown in high school and now to carry it over and play for Youngstown in college, there’s no better feeling,” said Waid, who led Girard to the state championship game last year. “My family and so many people that supported me throughout my high school career up in the stands, to be able to play for them and play for this city, there’s truly no better feeling.”

The Penguins also held A.J. Hines, one of the nation’s best running backs, to just 37 yards on 16 carries. A Walter Payton Award finalist in 2018, Hines didn’t have a run over 7 yards and averaged 2.3 yards per carry.

The Penguins get a week off before hosting Robert Morris (0-3) at 6 p.m. on Sept. 28. Missouri Valley Football Conference play begins the following week with a road game at Northern Iowa.

“The bye week, the way it is right now, it’s beneficial for us,” YSU senior running back Joe Alessi said, “because it’s almost right before conference. It’s a good little rest before conference (play) because our conference is a tough one to play in. It’ll be good for us.”