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Scouting Report: Week 7

The pressure is on the Youngstown State football team, and it’s only the third week of conference play.

Two straight Missouri Valley Conference losses has the Penguins desperately needing a win as they travel to Southern Illinois.

YSU (4-2, 0-2) needs a bounce-back win against a solid Salukis team that, similar to the Penguins, has two close conference losses to top-15 opponents. SIU (2-4, 0-2) has lost three straight overall and hasn’t beaten the Penguins since 2015, but the Salukis are talented. They boast one of the best running attacks in the MVFC and have played well against top competition.

The Salukis’ story sounds a lot like that of YSU, which dominated the No. 3 team in the nation for one half and then fell apart in the next. The Penguins still believe they’re a playoff team, and if that’s true, they’ll need to start winning MVFC contests.

QUARTERBACKS

YSU — Starter Nathan Mays is again questionable to play after re-injuring his leg late in last week’s loss. The senior, who had his worst game of the season, showed tremendous toughness by limping to the line of scrimmage in the fourth quarter before being forced to come out. If healthy, Mays’ leadership and dual-threat ability make him difficult to prepare for, but staying healthy has been a problem throughout his career. Joe Craycraft, who threw a TD pass last week, has gained valuable experience and is a viable replacement.

SIU — Junior Kare Lyles is a junior college transfer who started his career with the Wisconsin Badgers. He has just been OK since taking over Stone Labanowitz, completing 62-of-101 passes for 687 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions. Lyles appears to be more of a pocket passer, with negative-2 rushing yards and a long run of 15 yards.

EDGE — YSU

RUNNING BACKS

YSU — Senior Joe Alessi continues to be the Penguins’ best choice at running back. A hard runner with good speed, Alessi’s 447 yards are fifth best in the MVFC. Christian Turner usually starts, but he has struggled to find running room between the tackles. Braxton Chapman is often called upon late in games to help wear down opponents with blend of size (6-2, 220) and power.

SIU — The Salukis possess one of the more talented backfields in the conference. Preseason first-team All-MVFC pick D.J. Davis is set to return from an injury. The speedy senior led the conference in all-purpose yards last year. Davis (5-9, 170) is a big threat out of the backfield. Javon Williams Jr. (6-1, 239) adds power and grit to the fold, and Romeir Elliott (5-5, 188) is another gamebreaker who can score from anywhere. The trio is the focal point of SIU’s offense.

EDGE — SIU

RECEIVERS

YSU — Jermiah Braswell and Samuel St. Surin have led the receiving corps for most of the season. They don’t receive an abundance of opportunities because of the Penguins’ run-first approach, but they are both very capable to make big plays. Slot receiver Ryan Emans plays his role well and can slip under the radar of opposing defenses. Tight end Miles Joiner is slowly but surely becoming another key target for YSU.

SIU — Several players contribute to the passing attack of Southern Illinois. Wyoming transfer Avante Cox (5-10, 175) leads the team in receptions (21) and yards (307) but has just one TD. Landon Lenoir (the brother of former Western Illinois star, Lance) has 18 grabs for 214 yards. Tight end Nigel Kilby is an obvious red-zone target at a towering 6-8 and 243 pounds. He leads SIU with two TDs.

EDGE — Even

OFFENSIVE LINE

YSU — The offensive line took some steps forward after surrendering six sacks against UNI in Week 5. YSU hasn’t run the ball as well as it did early in the season, but that is to be expected with the competition improving. A group that is still working on its communication and cohesion needs to continue to improve the Penguins to go on a run.

SIU — Three of five starters returned up front for the Salukis, who have three backs with more than 300 yards. While the line has paved the way, it has also allowed 19 sacks (second most in the MVFC). Things won’t get easier against one of the best pass-rushing teams in the league.

EDGE — YSU

DEFENSIVE LINE

YSU — The d-line has been the strength of the defense all year, and while it had another solid performance last week, it appeared to wear down later in the game. Coach Bo Pelini may find it hard to take out standout players like Justus Reed (6.5 sacks) and DeMarko Craig (9 tackles for loss), but there may be more of a rotation after yielding big runs late in the loss to South Dakota State.

SIU — SIU is talented and experienced up front, led by junior preseason All-MVFC end Anthony Knighton (6-4, 260) who has 3.5 sacks and six TFLs. Jordan Berner (6-5, 253) is another returning starter (6 TFLs, 2 sacks), along with DT Malik Haynes (5-11, 334).

EDGE — YSU

LINEBACKERS

YSU — The usage of the linebackers has picked up since MVFC play began because of the run-heavy offenses, and that will likely continue against SIU. Cash Mitchell (7.5 TFLs) has laid some huge hits in the past few games and is becoming a force in the middle of the field. Ray Anderson is making a name for himself as well. The sophomore is tied for third on the team in tackles with 29.

SIU — The linebackers are mostly first-year starters. Sophomore Luke Giegling is a good pass rusher, with five TFLs and three sacks. Senior Cody Crider was a starter last year before a season-ending injury in Week 3. He leads the corps with 43 tackles.

EDGE — Even

SECONDARY

YSU — The inconsistent play of the secondary continued las week. They played very well at times, but inexcusably let star wide receiver Cade Johnson run wide open down the middle of the field late in the game for a crushing 82-yard TD. After picking off seven passes in the first four games, they haven’t snagged an interception since conference play began. One notable change was corner Bryce Gibson being benched in favor of Melvin Jackson.

SIU — Senior Jeremy Chinn leads a solid secondary. Chinn, a two-time all-conference strong safety, has a team-high two interceptions despite missing some time with injuries. Fellow safety Qua Brown, a junior, is having a breakout season, leading the MVFC with 62 tackles. Overall, SIU is allowing 213 yards per game and 10 TDs overall.

EDGE — SIU

SPECIALISTS

YSU — Punter Nick DeSalvo took baby steps to improving, but it’s hard to overlook his 34.9-yard average (the worst mark in the MVFC). Place kicker Colt McFadden is 2-of-3 on field goal attempts, with a long of 43. Punt returner Jake Coates leads the league in return yards (201).

SIU — Punter Jack Colquhoun is averaging 42 yards per kick. Place kicker Griffin Cerra is 2-of-3 on field goals, with a long of 39. Davis is dangerous as a kick returner.

EDGE — SIU

PREDICTION

Southern Illinois poses another formidable challenge for the Penguins. Each has started MVFC play with a pair of close defeats and needs a win to stay in playoff contention.

Their plans are similar, too, as both rely on the running game and a stout defense. Both backfields are talented and will be expected to carry the offense. The QB position is in limbo for SIU and YSU. The Salukis have been without Labanowitz for three games and he is not expected back. Mays has been battered the past two games and his availability is questionable.

Consistency is the key for YSU, which has been sporadic since conference play began. They’ll need to string together four quarters in a tough road matchup to pull out a victory.

YSU, 21-17.