By Marc Weems
After a bye week, the Youngstown State University football team is ready to begin Missouri Valley Football Conference play. For the Penguins (1-2) each week is do or die.
“I approach every week like that,” YSU Head Coach Bo Pelini said. “That’s my approach ― to just take care of what’s ahead of us. The next opponent is Western [Illinois University] and that’s where our attention is. We can’t control anything beyond that.”
Pelini said he told the team, “We have to become more efficient as a football team in all three areas.”
After losing their first two games against Butler University and West Virginia University, the Penguins dominated against Valparaiso University 42-7.
The Penguins will be looking to bounce back against WIU. The Leathernecks (1-2) have an offense that averages 22.7 points per game and 361 yards per game.
WIU’s offense is led by quarterback Sean McGuire with 266.7 yards per game with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. They average just 88 yards per game on the ground.
“It is do or die. We have to prove something to ourselves and continue to perform at a high level,” defensive end Shereif Bynum said. “Coaches talked about how the margin for error is even less in conference play. We have to be pristine every week,” Bynum said.
YSU’s defense is giving up 144 rushing yards per game while giving up 258 yards in the air through three games.
YSU’s offense was strong in week three against Valparaiso. Overall, the Penguins are rushing for 221.3 yards per game. Tevin McCaster is at the forefront with 126.3 per game and three touchdowns.
“When coach Crist makes those calls, I just happen to be in the right place at the right time,” tight end Miles Joiner said. “Montgomery [VanGorder] is able to find me in the red zone. That’s what has been happening a lot.”
Joiner has just seven receiving yards, but has two touchdowns to his name this year. Zach Farrar leads the team with 11 receptions for 173 yards but zero touchdowns so far.
“We’ve played some good opponents,” Pelini said. “We’re entering week four and our goal is to keep getting better each week and to keep growing as a football team. We understand and have respect for every opponent in the league.”
Pelini said with the mix of youth and veterans, this season is all a process.
YSU has given up 398 yards of offense per game while gaining 409 yards per game on offense. So far, VanGorder has thrown for 593 yards and seven touchdowns and one interception. He has also only been sacked once so far while rushing for 68 yards.
“Coaches actually say that we played West Virginia and that was a big game,” Joiner said. “They say that it’s not going to change much. We play a tough conference and every team plays do or die. We know that have to go and compete every week.”
Joiner said that Western Illinois has a good front and secondary.
The Leathernecks give up 183 yards on the ground per game which is YSU’s best trait. They give up just 149.3 yards in the air through three games.
“We are pretty healthy,” Pelini said as he knocked on wood. “We’re in pretty good shape. We have been able to make some adjustments and I feel pretty good about where we are.”
Pelini said the Leathernecks are similar to what the University of Pittsburgh did last year.
“You have to identify formations throughout the game and adjust very well in the game,” Pelini said of the Penguin offense. “They are going to put a lot of guys in different places. If you’re not disciplined and you’re not identifying sets and roles, it could be a long day for you.”
Defense has always been YSU’s calling card during Pelini’s time as head coach. This year is no different.
“We are expected to win and play at a high level,” Bynum said on the team’s readiness. “The approach never changes. It is all about us. Coach Bo really talks about preparation. How you prepare is how you’re going to play. Everyone has to play at a high level and contribute to the team.”
YSU and WIU face off on Sept. 29 at 4 p.m. at Hanson Field in Macomb, Ill.