By Nathanael Hawthorne
The Youngstown State University football team picked up a win against No. 6 ranked Illinois State University in the last game of the 2019 season and senior night. Penguins coach Bo Pelini also claimed his 100th career win.
With the win, the team improved to 6-6 overall and had a Missouri Valley Football Conference record of 2-6.
The Penguin defense held the Redbirds to 142 yards of total offense. YSU’s defense also forced a couple of turnovers — one of them being a pick-six by defensive back Zaire Jones.
“We played the run very well,” Pelini said. “We covered pretty well down the field. We got some good pressure but it all started with stopping the run game.”
The Penguin offense also seemed to be firing on all cylinders, combining for a total of 270 yards of total offense. Senior tailback Joe Alessi led the way for YSU on the ground with 103 rushing yards.
According to Alessi, clinching Pelini’s 100th win was a proper senior sendoff. He also believes the team came together the way they should have.
“I’ll remember this game for the rest of my life,” Alessi said. “To end my career at Youngstown State and have [Pelini] get his 100th career win is just awesome.”
When there was less than five minutes left on the clock, the YSU sideline was buzzing with excitement. Not for the eventual win, not for Pelini’s milestone and not for knocking off a top-10 ranked team.
They were excited for their quarterback, Nathan Mays.
In true Superman fashion, Nathan Mays tucked into a covered area on the sidelines in street clothes and emerged in full uniform for the Penguins. Unbeknownst to many, Mays intended on taking the final snap of the game, which is exactly what he did.
“I had it planned. A lot of people probably thought I was just joking around,” Mays said.
With 10 seconds left in the game, YSU called a timeout and substituted Mays in the game.
“I didn’t really know if I had the guts to actually ask if I could do it,” Mays said. “When I went up to Bo, he was all about it. It was pretty crazy. It didn’t hit me until I actually did it and then I saw my dad in tears. It was pretty special.”
“This is what he deserved, to go out there and take one last snap,” Pelini said.
Mays was hit in the backfield and suffered a season- and career-ending injury after breaking and dislocating his ankle Nov. 2 North Dakota State University.
Overall, the Penguins 2019 season was a little disappointing, according to Pelini, but he believes the win was a good way to cap the season.
“Obviously, the season wasn’t what we wanted, but it’s a great way to finish it,” Pelini said. “It was a frustrating season.”
The Penguins sent the 22-man senior class off the correct way, according to Alessi.
“We played the way we should play,” Alessi said. “We’re a family. A lot of people before the game were talking about, ‘We need to send the seniors out right,’ and I honestly think that was a lot of motivation for us to go out and get that ‘W’ as well.”
YSU quarterback Joe Craycraft threw an interception early in the first quarter, but the Penguin defense answered back with an interception of their own on the ensuing the Illinois State drive. After a couple of back-and-forth punts, YSU got on the scoreboard first with a six-yard touchdown run courtesy of Braxton Chapman.
Illinois State got on the board in the second quarter with a field goal. Craycraft scampered across the goal line later in the quarter, adding to the Penguins lead.
The second half was also a lot of back and forth punting between both teams — the only points scored was through the interception by Jones in the fourth quarter.
With the season completed, the Penguins made improvements from last year. The defensive output was substantially better, and the overall record was better by two games.