by Drae Smith
Host of "The Drae Smith Show" Thursdays 8am-10am
The Youngstown State football team will open the 2015 season this Saturday, September 5th at Heinz Field against the Pittsburgh Panthers. The game will mark the beginning of Bo Pelini’s first season as head coach and a new era of Penguins football. Pittsburgh will be starting a new era of their own, with new head coach and fellow Youngstown native, Pat Narduzzi at the helm. Narduzzi spent the past eight seasons at Michigan State, as one of the nation’s top defensive coordinators. He has strong ties to YSU, where he played his freshman season in 1985 before transferring to Rhode Island. His father, Bill Narduzzi, was the head coach of the Penguins from 1975 to 1985.
The last meeting between the schools was the 2012 season opener and one of the biggest victories in YSU history. The Penguins defeated the Panthers 31-17 to earn their first win over a Big Five conference opponent. YSU returns seven players who were a part of that 2012 victory: WR Andre Stubbs, WR Kintrell Disher, LB Dubem Nwadiogbu, RB Demond Hymes, WR Andrew Williams, DL Emmanuel Kromah and DL Steve Zaborsky. Andre Stubbs had one of the more memorable performances in recent memory with six carries for 71 rushing yards, four receptions for 61 receiving yards, 172 all-purpose yards and two total touchdowns.
During his weekly press conference, Head Coach Bo Pelini, was clear his players need to understand this game is winnable but have the utmost respect for their opponent. However, he also made it clear that what happened in 2012 is irrelevant and both teams are very different now in 2015. Pelini stated his respect for Pat Narduzzi, adding “other than this game, I wish him well.” When asked about keys to the game, Pelini mentioned the running game, special teams, field position and turnovers.
In the running game, the Penguins will be faced with the tall task of containing Pittsburgh running back James Conner. As a sophomore in 2014, Conner broke Tony Dorsett’s school records for rushing touchdowns, total touchdowns and points scored. He also set ACC conference records for rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns in a season.
The pressure will be on the new-look YSU defense, which is set to feature a number of unfamiliar faces. Those new projected starters include DT Cody Squiric, LB Jamar Pinnock, LB Lee Wright, FS LeRoy Alexander and CB Kenneth Durden. Coach Pelini said the defense is making progress but is not where he ultimately wants them to be. He emphasized the first game is simply a starting point, saying “In game one, I don't think there is going to be a team across the country that is a finished product.”
Youngstown State also heads to Pittsburgh with some uncertainty on special teams. The Penguins will feature a completely new kicking game with punter Nick Sheely and place kicker Zak Kennedy making their first career starts. However, Pelini expressed optimism about where the kicking game is currently at. “I think we’ve made some strides in our kicking game in the last week to ten days, it has been a lot better. I feel a lot more comfortable now than I did a week or so ago,” he said.
Pelini has clearly stated his goal is to make the playoffs and compete for a championship. Win or lose, Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh will be the first step in reaching that goal. He seems to understand how difficult a challenge it will be to upset Narduzzi and the Panthers on the road. However, players and coaches alike seem completely confident they can win at Heinz Field, as they did in 2012. Penguins fans can watch the game live on ESPN3.com or listen on 570 WKBN, kickoff is slated for 1pm EST.
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