At the beginning of the season, junior quarterback Kurt Hess was named to the preseason Walter Payton Watch List - an award given at the end of the year to the top player in the FCS. Through four games, it's evident why he is on that list.
There have been very few times this year Hess has made bad decisions. Through four games, he's 55-of-83 passing for 765 yards and eight touchdowns. More importantly, he hasn't thrown an interception this year. He's smart and poised and even if he makes a bad decision, he comes back the next play and makes up for it.
After a quiet start to the season, senior running back Jamaine Cook has been carrying the YSU running game. He leads the Penguins with 442 yards and five touchdowns. The best part of the running game is that Torrian Pace, and at times Demond Hymes, have come in and made some big plays. Pace has 209 yards and four touchdowns and is a nice second-back option to take the heat off of Cook at times. Pace has also been great in goal-line situations, as he has had two touchdowns from 1-yard out.
The receivers had one bad game this season, which occurred against Albany. Other than that day, which drops seemed to be contagious, the receiving corps has been spot on.
Tight end Will Shaw is having a fantastic season, leading the Penguins with 14 catches for 207 yards and four touchdowns. Shaw has done a great job of creating space between himself and the defense, and has been able to get some yards after the catch, making him Hess' favorite target.
The biggest addition to the receiving corps this season has been the return of Andre Stubbs, who had to sit out last season with a collarbone injury. He made a big splash against Pitt in the season opener, but has been quiet as of late. However, the big play potential with him is always there.
This group is the most experienced, and it has shown through the first four games. Hess has only been sacked twice and the line has given him plenty of time to run his offense. Also, the running game has combined for 944 yards. Numbers like that don't come without stability up front.
A lot of attention was put on the defense at the beginning of the season, as it was felt that the unit was responsible for many of the losses in the 2011 campaign. If one unit has been the front runner on the defensive side of the ball, it's the line.
Led by defensive end Aronde Stanton, the line has been strong this year, making numerous third- and fourth-down stops, including a huge play against Pitt that ended any chance of a Panther comeback. The line has allowed opposing running games an average of 102 yards per game. There have been a few breakdowns, but overall the line has been the most consistent part of the defense.
This is a group I?can't get a handle on. Sometimes I?think they are coming around and starting to make real improvement, then there are times when I?feel like they don't know what coverage they are in and let short plays become big ones.
Travis Williams has only started two games, but played in all four, and by far he is the hardest hitter and playmaker in the unit. He leads the team with 19 tackles, and has 3.5 for loss. He has been in a battle all season with Dubem "Bam" Nwadiogbu for the starting Will linebacker position.
One of the faults of the defense this year is not being able to defend short-yardage screen plays. If the linebackers can start stopping these plays - especially on third down - this unit will become much more effective.
In the offseason, YSU brought in Joe Tresey as the new defensive coordinator and safeties coach. The change was immediately noticeable, but the unit still has a long way to go.
There have been too many plays to list that coverage was lost and opposing teams were able to convert plays that should have been easily defendable. Also, there are many times the secondary just gives the receivers too much space, and then big plays come from there. Strong safety Jeremey Edwards has the only interception this season, and that was on a terrible throw and decision on the part of UNI quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen. In all, the secondary has allowed opponents 943 yards in four games - an average of 235.8 per game.
Ursuline graduate Dale Peterman has shown promise, recording 18 tackles this season. Edwards also has 18.
In terms of the kicking and punting, the Penguins get an A. Field goal kicker David Brown has connected on all three of his attempts this year and is also perfect on PATs, which he has had plenty of practice kicking. Punter and Niles graduate Nick Liste has been consistent, averaging 38.8-yards per punt with his long of 55 coming against UNI.
While the kicking portion of the game has been consistent, the return game has been lacking. The longest return on either punt or kick returns came from Andre Stubbs with a 28-yard return. Between Stubbs and Demond Hymes, the unit has explosive power, it just hasn't been tapped yet.
Coach Eric Wolford and offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery have had a great game plan for all of the games. Sometimes the play calling has been "vanilla,"?but it was because they are saving the plays for when it's needed. The staff is not afraid to go for it on fourth down, and it's paid off. Still, the play call of the season is the halfback pass against Pitt on fourth down.