by Drae Smith
Host of "The Drae Smith Show" Tuesdays 7pm-9pm
The #11 Youngstown State football team fell short 31-29 to #4 Illinois State this past Saturday. There was a great crowd on hand at Stambaugh Stadium, creating a playoff type atmosphere. The announced attendance of 17,715 was one of the largest turnouts in recent memory for YSU. The game was hard fought and close throughout, featuring a number of big plays and dramatic moments.
The Redbirds started the scoring when Josh Burch intercepted YSU QB Hunter Wells and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown. YSU responded with an eight-play, 80-yard drive which was capped with a three-yard touchdown run from Shane Kuhn. The extra point was blocked, leaving the Penguins behind 7-6 after one quarter.
In the second quarter, Illinois State QB Tre Roberson scored on a 58-yard run to make the score 14-6. Roberson, who is one of the best dual threat QBs in the nation, did not start the game because of a broken right thumb. He replaced Jake Kolbe early in the first half and instantly created problems for YSU’s defense. He finished the game with 90 rushing yards and a touchdown to go along with 130 passing yards and a touchdown.
The Penguins cut the Redbird lead to 14-9 at halftime with a 24-yard field goal from Zak Kennedy. Another Kennedy field goal from 36 yards out would make it 14-12. Illinois State kicker Sean Slattery then hit a 44-yard attempt to extend the Redbirds lead to 17-12 at the end of three quarters.
Early in the final period, YSU took their first lead of the contest with another touchdown run from Shane Kuhn. Hunter Wells found Jacob Wood on the two point conversion, putting the Penguins in front 20-17. Illinois State regained the lead when Roberson connected with Anthony Warrum on a 39 yard touchdown pass, making it 24-20.
Zak Kennedy then connected on a career long, 49-yard field goal to bring the Penguins within 1 at 24-23. On the ensuing drive, YSU’s defense forced a fourth down but was fooled on a fake punt which extended the drive for Illinois State. All-American running back Marshaun Coprich then got loose for a 19-yard touchdown to put ISU ahead 31-23. Coprich finished with 131 yards and a score on 23 carries.
YSU would have one final comeback attempt on their final drive. Hunter Wells hit RB Martin Ruiz for a 13 yard touchdown with 32 seconds left in the game to make it 31-29. Needing the two point conversion to tie the game and force overtime, Wells scrambled to his right and appeared to get in the end-zone. The officials initially ruled the try good but after review, it was determined Wells was down before reaching the goal line.
The Penguins then attempted an onside kick which was batted out of bounds by a Redbird player. YSU coaches and fans pleaded for an illegal bat ruling but possession was given to Illinois State. The Redbirds went on to run out the clock to end the game.
There were a number of questionable calls throughout the game which went against the Penguins. A very strange defensive holding call on a crucial third down in the first half hurt YSU greatly. The Penguins would have had a three and out but instead, ISU kept the ball and went on to score a TD on the drive. Head Coach Bo Pelini and his staff were visibly upset with the officials throughout the game.
While the loss was disappointing for Youngstown State, it does not seriously damage their playoff hopes. A final record of 9-3 or 8-4 would undoubtedly get any Missouri Valley team a playoff spot. That means YSU could potentially lose two more games and still get into the postseason.
Also, there is absolutely no shame in losing to a proven team like Illinois State. The Redbirds were co-champions of the Missouri Valley Football Conference last season and made it to the National Championship game. They also feature two of the most elite players at the FCS level in Roberson and Coprich.
The YSU offense out-gained ISU 447 to 367, earning 207 yards rushing and 240 passing. They showcased their balanced attack and proved they can move the ball against a high level defense. Martin Ruiz ran for 84 yards on 18 rushes while also catching four passes for 77 yards and a touchdown.
RB Jody Webb collected 107 rushing yards on 16 attempts. QB Hunter Wells was 18 of 27 for 240 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Defensively, S LeRoy Alexander led the way for YSU with 11 total tackles.
Coach Pelini was not thrilled with his team’s performance, saying “We didn't play well enough in any phase of the game to win this football game.”
Youngstown State is now 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the MVFC. They will be back in action this Saturday when they host #7 South Dakota State at 4pm for their annual Homecoming Game.