by Drae Smith
Host of "The Drae Smith Show" Thursdays 8am-10am
The Youngstown State football team came up one possession short in a 45-37 loss to Pittsburgh in Saturday’s 2015 season opener at Heinz Field. The Penguins started strong, driving all the way inside the Panther’s five yard line after a long Martin Ruiz run. However, the drive stalled and they were forced to settle for a short field goal from Cardinal Mooney grad, Zak Kennedy.
After that, Pitt would begin to take control of the line of scrimmage with star running back James Connor reeking havoc. Connor, who most certainly will being playing on Sundays, was no match for the YSU defense, rushing for 79 yards and two touchdowns on just eight carries. The Penguins caught a break when Connor left the game in the second quarter with a knee injury.
However, the Panthers had redshirt freshman Qadree Ollison to pick up where Connor left off. Ollison, who is an imposing 6’2 230 pounds, dominated with 16 carries for 212 yards and a touchdown. Pitt was in control of the game, leading 17-6 in the second quarter when YSU safety, LeRoy Alexander, intercepted a pass and returned it 41 yards for a touchdown. Alexander, who transferred from Nebraska, made an immediate impact and was YSU’s best player on defense for most of the game. He finished with nine tackles and two interceptions.
Alexander’s touchdown cut Pitt’s lead to 17-13 and swung the momentum back in YSU’s favor. However, on the ensuing kickoff, Pitt broke through the kick coverage for a touchdown which killed any advantage YSU had gained. The score was 24-13 at halftime but the scoring and excitement was just beginning. The second half was thrilling with numerous long scoring plays on both sides.
The Penguins would cut the lead to 24-16 with another Zak Kennedy field goal before Ollison ran 71 yards for another Pitt touchdown. YSU would answer with a 27 yard touchdown run from Jody Webb, making the score 31-23. A 55 yard touchdown pass from Pitt QB Chad Voytik made it 38-23 before YSU QB Hunter Wells found WR Andre Stubbs for a 77 yard score. Wells was under heavy pressure throughout the day but had a solid performance, going 19 of 38 for 274 yards and a touchdown. Andre Stubbs also had a big day with 6 catches for 147 yards and a touchdown.
With the score 38-30, the Penguins offense faced a massive 4th and 1 play and decided to go for it. With three timeouts, the Penguins could have punted but opted for an outside zone run which was stuffed. Pitt scored on the ensuing possession, making it 45-30 and the game seemed to be over. To the Penguins credit, they continued to fight back every time it seemed the Panthers might pull away. Jody Webb busted loose for 75 yard touchdown making it 45-37, but the Penguins would not get any closer. Webb was extremely impressive, rushing for 142 yards and two scores after starting RB Martin Ruiz went out in the first half with a thigh bruise.
Head Coach Bo Pelini was noticeably frustrated after the game, saying his team hurt themselves in many ways and that he fully expected to win the game. He took responsibility for the loss and credited his team’s effort, saying “We played hard, we didn't always play smart. We made enough mistakes coaching and playing, they were hard to overcome.” He also seemed extremely optimistic about where the team is headed, saying “I think we will be better because of this football game, there is no question we have the potential to be a very good football team.”
The Penguins’ offense was just 3 of 16 on third downs, but still collected 407 total yards and scored 37 points with no turnovers. They were also solid on special teams for most of the day, freshman kicker Zak Kennedy was 3 of 3 on field goal attempts including one from 42 yards. Once again, the primary struggles were on defense where YSU gave up 325 yards on the ground. Poor tackling and missed assignments cost them on a few big plays which ended up being the difference.
Even in a loss, there are many positives to take away for this Youngstown State team moving forward. They showed unbelievable toughness, character and resiliency to keep coming back when the game seemed lost. They also showed they have serious impact players on both sides of the ball who look poised for great seasons.
After the game, QB Hunter Wells said, “we figured out who’s going to go to war and whose not.” This loss should serve as a great starting point and learning experience as the Penguins prepare for a rigorous Missouri Valley Football Conference schedule. Coach Pelini said, “this could send us on our way to what we’re capable of doing, I am confident this football team will respond the right way.”
YSU will face Robert Morris at Stambaugh Stadium for their home opener next Saturday at 7pm. Fans can watch the game at ESPN3.com or listen on 570 WKBN.