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Penguins upbeat despite two straight losses

YOUNGSTOWN — The Youngstown State football team didn’t sound like a group down in the dumps a few days after dropping its second straight conference game.

The 18th-ranked Penguins are mad, confident and feel they’re a few plays away from being 6-0.

Instead, YSU is 4-2 and 0-2 in the always-tough Missouri Valley Football Conference after two gut-wrenching losses to teams ranked in the top 15 in the nation. With playoff aspirations diminishing with each loss, the Penguins will be desperate for a victory when they travel to unranked Southern Illinois (2-4, 0-2) at 3 p.m. Saturday in Carbondale, Ill.

Regardless of how MVFC play started, the Penguins aren’t questioning themselves.

“Our confidence, I wouldn’t say it’s at an all-time high, but we are still very confident as a team,” YSU offensive lineman Dan Becker said. “The film shows we’re one play away from beating UNI, we’re one stop away from beating South Dakota State. Our team is super confident. We all have the same mentality that we can play with anybody in this league, anyone in this conference, anybody in the country.”

Their road to recovery starts with an interesting matchup against the Salukis.

Southern Illinois also has two difficult conference losses, one to 10th-ranked Illinois State (21-7) and the other to No. 3 South Dakota State (28-10). The Salukis will be a formidable foe for a YSU team that hasn’t won an MVFC road game since beating none other than Southern Illinois on Nov. 11, 2017.

They’ll need a repeat performance to get back into playoff contention, and coach Bo Pelini believes they’re ready to make that happen.

“I think they’re mad,” he said of the team’s mentality. “Every guy in the room takes responsibility, and I’ll tell you what I told them: We’re close. We’re not far off. We’re doing a lot of good things. You look at the other day. You’re minus four in takeaways. We made some grave mistakes that hurt us. We had a couple calls go against us, and you’re a missed tackle away from getting the ball back with a chance to win the football game at the end. So, my message is the same, we’ve got to be more consistent.”

YSU has been all over the place as of late.

The Penguins show flashes of greatness — such as leading South Dakota State, 14-3, at halftime and thoroughly outplaying Northern Iowa in the second half two weeks ago. But they often have long stretches of poor play as well (being outscored 35-14 in the second half against SDSU and struggling to muster any offense in the first half against UNI).

Pelini said changing the up-and-down play comes down to developing as a team.

“It’s a maturity thing,” he said. “… At times, our guys are pressing. Maybe the momentum starts switching a little bit, and we’ve got guys trying too hard. When you get in that situation, every guy has to have the mindset of just do your job. Don’t try and do something out of the ordinary. If you just do your job and execute, you’re going to get yourself out of bad situations.”

Getting out of this one is going to take contributions from everyone, starting at quarterback.

The health of starter Nathan Mays is up in the air for the second straight week. Mays left the SDSU game late in the fourth quarter after apparently re-injuring his leg, which he first injured late in the loss to UNI. He has started all six games this year, completing 66-of-104 passes (63.5 percent) for 958 yards, eight TDs and four interceptions. He also has a team-high six rushing touchdowns and is second on YSU with 290 rushing yards.

“I can say this, he felt a lot better Sunday than he did the previous Sunday,” Pelini said of Mays’ health. “He’s a warrior, and he’s a tough kid, but we’ll just have to see how he progresses as the week goes on.”

With injuries, losses and doubt piling up, the Penguins insist they’re not fazed.

They understand they have struggled to respond when adversity hits, but a young team says they’re learning and remains adamant better days are ahead.

“They were tough losses,” said Becker of the last two weeks. “We felt we should’ve won them both. Losing like that is tough on a team, mentally, but I think we’re as ready as ever, just from the energy in the lift yesterday. Everyone is here. We’re ready to compete. The energy is high. We’re ready to go for another week.”