By: Drae Smith
There was an odd vibe at Stambaugh Stadium last Saturday night when the Youngstown State Penguins faced the Western Illinois Leathernecks in a big Missouri Valley Football Conference matchup. On the opening kickoff, YSU’s Desmond Williams was ejected for a vicious Targeting penalty that left a Western Illinois player hurt. This was just the beginning of what would turn out to be a strange game filled with penalties, personal fouls, ejections and fluke plays.
The Penguins marched down the field with the running attack on their opening drive until things stalled and they were forced to settle for a field goal. Down 7-3, Penguins cornerback Nate Dorch appeared to have an easy interception when the ball ricocheted off his chest and into the hands of a Leatherneck receiver who proceeded to run all the way for a touchdown.
After an ugly second drive that ended with a sack, starting quarterback Dante Nania was unexpectedly benched in favor of true freshman, Hunter Wells. Wells started a few weeks ago against Butler when Nania was sidelined with an injury and looked promising; however this was a much more challenging situation. The freshman responded well, leading the Penguins to two quick scores, one a passing touchdown to Senior, Jelani Berassa which put the Penguins up 17-14 at halftime.
The next bizarre turn came after halftime when the YSU home crowd dwindled to about half the size it had been during the first half. On a night which turned cold quick, the older crowd appeared to be more interested in getting home to warmth instead of watching/helping the Penguins win a big conference game.
The YSU defense forced a three and out to begin the second half, however another fake punt gashed the Penguins for a first down that gained huge yardage. Just a few weeks back, the Penguins gave up an almost identical play against St. Francis (PA). The fake ignited Western Illinois as they eventually built a 30-17 lead in the fourth quarter.
The Penguins battled back to make the score 30-24 and attempted a last second hail mary pass that failed as time expired. After this bizarre, stunning conference loss at home, we are left with more questions than answers about this 2014 Youngstown State Football team. With this loss, they cannot afford to lose more than one, maybe two more games if expect to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
Questions at Quarterback:
Now in the middle of our rigorous conference schedule, we are unsettled at the most important position on the field. Starter Dante Nania was benched in a close game because the coaching staff believed Hunter Wells could more effectively stretch the field vertically with the pass to make a comeback. This according to Head Coach Eric Wolford in his post game press conference. You now have to wonder about the mental state of Nania, as he was benched for Wells at the first sign of trouble. He was pulled from the game after two drives, not given a chance to get his team back in the game. Wolford said after the game that he would like to play both Nania and Wells going forward, using a two-quarterback system. The run game appears to be much more effective with Nania, utilizing zone/read option plays to their advantage. Wells is a pocket passer who poses no running threat but throws the ball vertically much better than Nania. It will be extremely interesting to see how Nania responds if called upon and how the coaching staff handles the situation as we head into an extremely difficult stretch of games.
The YSU defense which had looked better this season, experienced some of the same struggles we have seen over the past few years. They gave up some big plays and had problems defending the pass in crucial situations. They had an extremely difficult time getting off the field on third down when they needed it the most. On the final Western Illinois drive, the Penguins had a number of chances to get the ball back to the offense with time to score but instead gave up passing plays for first downs. With an offense still trying to figure out who and how it wants to play, this defense will have to play better if the Penguins want to survive the tough road ahead.