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Penguins focus on getting details right

YOUNGSTOWN — The little things will go a long way for the Youngstown State football team.

That was the message from the players as well as coach Bo Pelini following a conference-opening loss to Northern Iowa over the weekend.

After cruising through the non-league portion of the schedule, some weaknesses surfaced for the 17th-ranked Penguins (4-1, 0-1 Missouri Valley Football Conference), who struggled to run the ball and protect the quarterback in a 21-14 loss to 10th-ranked UNI.

The miscues often involved a mental mistake or a fundamental flaw, details that may seem minor to some but can lead to big plays for the opposition.

“Little things,” said defensive tackle Antoine Cook of what he took from watching the film of the loss. “Everything coach preaches. It was the little things, details. When we hit the film, you could see the little things are getting us hurt, stuff like that. That’s all we’ve got to work on — fixing the details — and we’ll be good.”

Five games into a season with playoff aspirations, Pelini would like those types of issues to already be corrected.

He lamented over lapses in the secondary, which he said were more mental than physical, breakdowns on the offensive line, where one player missing an assignment led to a negative play, and an inability to apply certain aspects of the gameplan.

“It happens in every football game,” Pelini admitted. “You’ve just got to limit it as much as you can. No one’s perfect. Things happen, and unfortunately, that’s part of the game. I’ve been around long enough to know that the team that makes the least amount of (mistakes) usually wins the football game.

“There were certainly things that happened, and I’m on the plane heading home shaking my head because many things could have been avoided. You give the credit to your opponent, but at the same time we’ve got to button things down.”

They’ll need to do it in a hurry, too.

The Penguins welcome No. 3-ranked South Dakota State University (4-1, 1-0) to Stambaugh Stadium at 6 p.m. Saturday. The Jackrabbits got a wake-up call of sorts as well last week. They trailed unranked Southern Illinois at home, 10-9, at halftime before outscoring the Salukis, 19-0, in the second half.

SDSU is a different team than in years past. Former All-American quarterback Taryn Christion is now in the NFL, and several other star players have moved on as well. That resulted in a new style.

Instead of the pass-happy approach of years past, the Jackrabbits are a run-first team (averaging 253 rushing yards per game — second best in the MVFC) and a stout defense, which allows 11.9 points per game (tied for the league low) and a MVFC-best 258.2 yards per game.

“The offense is very similar, but maybe they’re featuring different aspects of it,” Pelini said of SDSU. “They’re probably limited a little bit to help the young quarterback (redshirt freshman J’Bore Gibbs), but they have certain things that they do, that they believe in, that they execute well and they feature that. How they choose to do it against us, I’m not sure, but we’ll be ready.”

YSU may have to prepare without starting quarterback Nathan Mays.

Pelini said the senior is “day-to-day” after he injured his leg late in the loss to UNI. He was shown on crutches during the TV broadcast after being sandwiched between two defenders on a sack. Sophomore Joe Craycraft would likely step in if Mays can’t go, with Girard High School product and true freshman Mark Waid backing him up.

Regardless of who’s playing, the Penguins believe this is a critical game in determining how the season will unfold. Two losses to start conference play would mean YSU would have to be almost perfect for the final six games of the season.

Cook thinks the Penguins got a reality check at the right time.

“Maybe we needed that,” Cook said of the loss. “Maybe we needed to lose. Maybe we needed to get hit in the mouth and learn from it and go into this next big game and hit them in the mouth.

“This is a must win,” he added. “I’m very confident in my brothers, and it’s going to be a great game.”