By Joshua Fitch
With one game remaining on the 2018 schedule, the Youngstown State University Penguins will once again look to play inspired football for their senior leaders.
Last week, the Penguins beat the University of Northern Iowa Panthers, 31-10, behind a strong performance from the upperclassmen on the team. A sense of passion finally blossomed with some force.
“The last few weeks have been really fun,” quarterback Montgomery VanGorder said. “The emotion and the fun we’ve been having the last few weeks. We showed the fire you have to play this sport with, and last week we put our most complete performance together to date.”
Yet again, the run game for the Penguins was at full strength in the win against UNI, and is definitely in the game plan this week in the matchup with the Redbirds. Leading the way in the running game is senior Tevin McCaster, who’s not only had a good season on the ground this year, but a phenomenal career with the Penguins. One that comes to an end this week.
McCaster needs 172 rushing yards to reach the 3,000-yard mark for his career, becoming just the ninth player to do so in school history. Currently at 593 career carries, he needs just seven more to reach 600, becoming the eighth player to reach that number.
The running game will be a focus point for YSU’s defense, as James Robinson, Illinois State’s junior running back poses a major threat. In 10 games, Robinson has averaged 5.7 yards per carry and just over 100 yards per game while scoring 10 touchdowns on the year.
“He’s as good of a back that there is in the league,” coach Bo Pelini said. “On offense, it starts with their running game. We have to limit him and play physical. If you don’t play physical with this guy and tackle, you’re in for a long day.”
Like VanGorder, Pelini can feel the difference in energy over the last two games for the Penguins and insists his team will bring it again. The Penguins will not make the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs, but as a coach Pelini has noticed the positive trend in his team recently.
“Sometimes you need a wakeup call and we got it,” Pelini said. “I don’t change much week to week because we work for a level of consistency and the last two weeks, I think we’ve responded. It’s difficult when you know you’re out of the playoffs, but I like the way our guys have responded. We’re headed in the right direction. The last two weeks we’ve played our best football and that needs to continue.”
In last season’s matchup, the Redbirds took down the Penguins in a 35-0 rout on homecoming. Pelini said it wasn’t much Illinois State did in that game but, “we didn’t play very well and we missed opportunities early.”
He also said last season’s game was much like the beginning of this season for YSU, lack of focus and attention to detail.
But hope lies in the two most recent performances for the Penguins, and with a senior class ready to take the field for the last time, inspirational football will once again look to take the field this Saturday.
“It’s been fun,” VanGorder said. “It’s been a great time with these guys in the locker room, they made it easy for me even through the ups and downs.” He added that early on when, “[the team] had some adversity, we kind of retreated on our heels, where now the last two games when we’ve faced adversity, we’ve fought back.”
“I have a lot of respect for those guys,” Pelini said. “What they’ve done here for the last four years. The best way to honor that is to coach my best game for them and for the players to play for them. Honor them by how you play.”
The Redbirds host the Penguins Saturday, with kickoff at 1 p.m. Listen on 570 WKBN radio or watch on ESPN+.