By Dan Hiner
The Youngstown State University football team’s loss to South Dakota State University last Saturday put the team’s postseason aspirations in jeopardy. With the Penguins’ backs against the wall, the team will have to win against Southern Illinois University to get back on track.
“Coming into that game, we thought the outcome would have been better than what we thought,” wide receiver I’tavious Harvin said. “As a team, our mindset was pretty much was not there. I guess we depended on certain players to get the job done, but we got to come together.”
YSU will have to defend another duel-threat quarterback, Mark Iannotti. The Southern Illinois offense revolves around the play of their quarterback. Iannotti leads the team in total offense with 2,217 yards. His 418 rushing yards leads the Salukis, and he is eighth in the nation with 1,799 passing yards.
The Penguins will have to create pressure against one of the top quarterbacks in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, but they will have to go through the top offensive line in the nation. The Southern Illinois offensive line hasn’t allowed a sack in the past four games and allowed three sacks this season.
The Salukis’ offense is one of the fourth best offensive units in the nation. Southern Illinois averages 230 rushing yards per game (15th in the nation) and 313 passing yards per game (ninth in the nation).
“This is different. This is almost like playing [against] the wildcat for four quarters,” YSU head coach Bo Pelini said. “They’re going to go really fast. Their quarterback is always a run threat. It’s like having a tailback at quarterback. It’s a very unique system. It’s not one you run into every week. It’s different than the ones we played the last couple weeks. There’s some elements that are similar, but this is different. They’re going to spread you out. They’re going to use the quarterback in the run game. They’re going to try to create one-on-one matchups as much as possible, and there’s going to be a lot of one-on-one opportunities.”
Missed tackles have been one of the reasons opposing teams have created long plays in the past two weeks. Pelini said the team would have to tackle well when the team is faced with one-on-one situations.
“We’re going to need to make the play in space at times. That’s just the way it is,” Pelini said. “There’s times, I think our guys, first and foremost, have to understand the game plan and have respect for what this team does. They believe in their system, they’re committed to it and they know what they’re doing. It makes you have to be on point all day. [If] you miss some of those one-on-one matchups, you miss a tackle — it could be a bigger play than what you like to see. To a certain extent, that has hurt us. A guy being out of position here or there, instead of it being a five or six yard gain, becomes a 15-yard gain or a 20-yard gain. In this game it becomes even more pronounced because of the type of offense we’re playing against. It’ll be a nice challenge for us.”
After the loss to South Dakota State, Pelini said the coaching staff is reevaluating members of the team. Pelini said the process started at the beginning of the week, and any changes will be made before the matchup with Southern Illinois.
“That’s how we go about our business anyway. No one’s locked into anything — ever,” Pelini said. “You compete during the week, you earn your playing time on Saturday by what you do during the week and that really hasn’t changed.”
One player that came under scrutiny for his performance last week was starting quarterback Hunter Wells. Pelini said Wells is still considered the Penguins’ starting quarterback. He wants the team to put Wells in better situations to succeed.
“A lot of times it falls on the quarterback. Sometimes it’s justified, sometimes it’s not,” Pelini said. “I know one thing — we got to play better around him. We put him in a lot of tough situations. Our running game was nonexistent at times, and we didn’t run it very well. We didn’t get much movement and that put the quarterback in some difficult situations. There were a couple drops.”
“That’s kinda the nature of the position. Sometimes it falls on him and it’s not always fair. Did he play his best game? No, I think he would be the first one to say he didn’t play his best game, but I know one thing, we have to play better around him — to help the quarterback. One guy can’t do it by himself. Hunter’s a good player, he’s a young player, he’s still learning … we have a lot of confidence in him.”
The players said the team is still confident after losing the last two games.
“We’re hungry. We’re hungry,” defensive tackle Emmanuel Kromah said. “After these first two losses we’re hungry, and we’re realizing that our backs are against the wall. We really don’t have any choice either. We stay down or we fight.”