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Penguins feel like winners after opening loss

YOUNGSTOWN — The Youngstown State football team’s record is officially 0-1, but in a lot of ways, the Penguins feel more like 1-0.

YSU lost its season opener, 25-7, to No. 1-ranked North Dakota State on Sunday, but aside from competing with the defending national champion for the better part of four quarters, the Penguins were happy just to play a game after a 15-month layoff.

“No one ever wants to lose a game, obviously,” YSU junior tight end Josh Burgett said. “No one goes into a game wanting to lose, but we’ve got to look at the positives. We’re a really young team, we’ve got a brand new coaching staff, and what I saw in that game is that we didn’t give up, we kept fighting.

“We stuck together. That was really big. That’s a lot of progress that I wanted to see, that the coaching staff wanted to see. Everybody kept fighting and stuck together. There was no finger pointing or anything like that.”

Losing was disappointing, but simply playing the game of football was liberating — and a confidence booster — for the Penguins.

YSU trailed 18-7 late in the second half and had the ball with a chance to potentially make it a three-point game. While that didn’t happen, and the Bison eventually scored a game-sealing touchdown, the Penguins showed the resilience to fight back against a program that has won eight of the last nine FCS championships.

Of equal importance was the experience of playing together. Four of the five starting offensive linemen had never played a down of college football prior to Sunday. In fact, the majority of YSU’s team is vastly different from the last time it took the field in November of 2019. Throw in an entirely new coaching, and the Penguins were almost completely overhauled.

That’s why first year-coach Doug Phillips was pleased to see so much poise from the players.

“The thing I loved was at halftime our kids believed,” Phillips said. “We’re down 11-0, and we said the whole time that we’ve got to take their best punch, and we can’t back down. Going into halftime in the locker room, our kids were standing up and our kids were excited, saying, ‘Coach, we took their best punch. We’re not backing down. We’re going out to play a second half with a chance to win the football game.’ ”

Things don’t get much easier for YSU. They rarely do in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

The Penguins welcome an angry fifth-ranked Northern Iowa team to Stambaugh Stadium for a noon kickoff Saturday. The Panthers suffered a 24-20 loss to No. 3 South Dakota State in the final 20 seconds of the game. UNI boasts the conference’s top quarterback in Will McElvain, who was named first-team all-MVFC in the preseason. He’s a dual-threat QB who can demoralize a defense by extending a broken play and turning it into a big one. He has several playmakers around him as well, including one of the league’s top receivers in Isaiah Weston.

The defense returns nine starters (three first-team, all-conference players). The Panthers also possess one of the league’s top place kickers in Matthew Cook. It’s one the MVFC’s — and the country’s — most well-rounded teams. Competing starts with keeping McElvain under control.

“We’ve got our hands full,” Phillips said. “We’re not going to back down. We’re going to prepare our kids the best we can to defend that type of quarterback. It’s a lot different than what we went against at North Dakota State, so we’ve got a huge challenge on a short week. But again, we’re not going to make excuses. We’ve got to make sure we’re lined up, that we’re fundamentally sound and that we can tackle him and keep him contained to eliminate him making the big plays.”

YSU could use a few big plays of its own.

While the defense hung tough against NDSU, the offense struggled, rushing for 51 yards and passing for 120. The lone score came when YSU quarterback Mark Waid extended a play and found fellow Mahoning Valley native Jake Coates for a 7-yard TD pass. Phillips said he’ll continue to use both Waid and junior QB Joe Craycraft for the foreseeable future.

“I know everyone always wants to say, ‘Hey, when is there every going to be a starter?’ ” Phillips said. “I truly believe in a year that we’re playing a (spring) season, in a year where you have COVID and you don’t know who’s at practice and who’s going to be in the game, what receivers you have and who you have on the o-line, it’s hard to truly give those guys an evaluation because that line up can change daily and it does change daily. … There will be a time and a place where we’re going to have to make that decision, but right now I don’t think it’s fair to either of them. It’s based on the momentum of the game.”

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