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Penguins’ problems were of their own making

YOUNGSTOWN — A strange season keeps getting weirder for the Youngstown State football team.

This time, the oddities had little to do with COVID-19.

The Penguins couldn’t hold a lead and struggled with turnovers and special teams against previously winless Western Illinois last week. Areas that they’ve done well in for much of the season faltered in what appeared to be a very “winnable” game for YSU (1-5, 1-5 Missouri Valley Football Conference).

“We put together little clips (of the game) called the good, the bad and the ugly. Remember that old movie from the ’60s — old Clint Eastwood?” Penguins coach Doug Phillips said. “But there was good, and there was bad. There are always going to be some bad plays in the game, whether it’s turnovers or whatever. The ugly was you just cannot give up touchdowns on special teams. Giving up one is hard enough to try and win on the road. When you give up two, and then you have three turnovers on top of that… There were some good plays in there: the goal-line stand, the blocked kick, the touchdown before half.

“But, in the second half, we got out-coached (and) they outplayed us.”

It ended up being a defining win for the Leathernecks, who announced two days later that they were canceling the rest of their season.

The Penguins are trying to make sure the loss doesn’t define their season as well. YSU travels to play the upstart Missouri State Bears, whose No. 15 ranking is their highest since 1996, on Saturday. The Bears (4-4, 4-1) played three games in the fall under first-year coach Bobby Petrino, who had head coaching stops at Louisville and Arkansas as well as the Atlanta Falcons of the NFL before arriving at MSU.

Petrino, who has been involved in several controversies during his coaching career, has Missouri State tied atop the MVFC standings after three wins over top-25 teams. All four of the Bears’ conference victories have been by seven points or less, with quarterback Matt Struck adding a spark when he took over as the starter three weeks ago.

The biggest benefit for MSU, according to Phillips, was playing in the fall.

“They were able to practice and learn more about that team,” he said. “Imagine what we looked like Game 1 to Game 4. There was a difference, and they were able to have that in the fall. They came out for the winter season, and you could see the improvements. They made the necessary improvements. That’s why right now they’re sitting at 4-1.”

Inconsistency is the main reason why YSU is 1-5.

The Penguins’ special teams had a night to forget last weekend, when the Penguins allowed a punt return and a kick return for touchdowns in the 27-24 loss. Quarterback Mark Waid threw two late interceptions as well, one leading to the go-ahead touchdown and the other sealing the loss in the final minutes. YSU had not allowed a special teams touchdown prior to the game, and Waid had just two picks in the previous five contests.

Still, the Penguins held a 24-19 lead with 7 minutes to play.

“We’ve got to learn how to finish games,” defensive tackle Vinny Gentile said. “We ended up finishing the one against South Dakota. We were right there against South Dakota State. So, I think once we finish a game, we’ll really start rolling here.”

There were a few areas that stayed consistent.

YSU junior running back Jaleel McLaughlin ran for 122 yards — eclipsing the 100-yard mark for the fourth consecutive game. The defense allowed just 13 points and played well for most of the defeat. Despite the interceptions, Waid completed 20-of-28 passes for 186 yards — all career highs.

However, as Gentile said, all phases of the game must be in sync to win in the toughest conference in the FCS. That’s a goal the Penguins haven’t lost sight of despite their record.

“We’re very fortunate that we have a team full of those guys that won’t give up, that will keep playing,” Gentile said. “Coach Phillips does a great job instilling that ‘want’ to go out and play, no matter the circumstances. No matter what the record is, no matter who you’re playing, he does a really good job — our whole staff does a good job — of making us want to go out there and perform.”

They’ll have another chance at 3 p.m. Saturday in Springfield, Missouri.

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