Comeback win can’t propel Penguins to playoff

By Kyle Wills

With its season on the line, the Youngstown State University football team returned to Stambaugh Stadium on Nov. 19 for one final playoff push against Southern Illinois University.

On senior day, the Salukis jumped to an early 14-0 lead in the first quarter with two touchdown passes. Southern Illinois connected deep on its first score with a 70-yard pass, then completed a throw from 22 yards out, three minutes later. The Penguins got on the board and cut the deficit following an eight-minute drive with a 2-yard touchdown run from senior Jaleel McLaughlin. 

Neither team would score again until the fourth quarter when Southern Illinois extended its lead to 21-7 after a 48-yard touchdown within the first four minutes of the period. 

Youngstown State responded with nearly 200 yards of offense to score 21 unanswered points including two touchdown grabs from junior Bryce Oliver. Junior Mitch Davidson found Oliver over the top with a 48-yard pass at the 8:43 mark and again to tie the game with 1:15 left after a 7-yard, back-shoulder pass.

McLaughlin gave the Penguins a 28-21 lead after a 22-yard scoring run with 35 seconds left in the game and senior Marcus Hooker sealed the game with his second interception of the afternoon.

With the team’s season in limbo after the victory, head coach Doug Phillips said it needed to control what it could to keep its playoff hopes alive.

“We play in the toughest FCS conference in the country. We’ve won our last five out of six games. Don’t matter how you win, but we’ve found a way to win five out of our last six games,” Phillips said.

Hooker finished the game with two of the team’s three interceptions, along with four tackles. Sophomore Alex Howard created havoc in the backfield with one of the team’s three sacks and four tackles, including two tackles for loss.

McLaughlin finished with under 100 yards rushing for just the third time this season with 84 along with two scores. He said this proved there are other playmakers on the team.

“It shows there’s a lot of other guys out here on Youngstown State besides me. Our defense played an outstanding game. Once plays were [needed] to be made, there were a lot of people on the offense that made those plays,” McLaughlin said.

Davidson ended the game with 268 yards with two scoring passes. Almost 150 yards and both scores came in the final quarter. Oliver finished with a game-high 17 targets, bringing in 12 receptions for 147 yards.

On Thanksgiving, McLaughlin gave thanks to YSU, along with players and coaches, and announced his declaration for the 2023 NFL Draft via social media. He finished the 2022 season with 1,588 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns and concluded his collegiate career with the NCAA career rushing yards record, finalizing at 8,166 yards.

Despite finishing the season 7-4, the football team’s campaign came to an end after not being voted into the FCS playoffs. Its seven wins this season are the most for Youngstown State since the 2016 FCS runner-up season.