YOUNGSTOWN - At a press conference earlier this week, Youngstown State University senior captain Dom Rich said the Penguins wanted to make a statement in the season opener against Dayton, a non-scholarship school.
If the statement to be sent was that YSU needs some work, then mission accomplished.
The Penguins beat Dayton, 28-10, to win their 18th straight home opener, but YSU played inconsistently on offense, and it took a few big plays in the fourth quarter to put Dayton away - ending an 0-9 record against the Flyers.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
YSU’s Andre Stubbs (4) fights off Dayton’s Kyle Sebetic (24) during first-half action Thursday night.
The pivotal moment of the game happened during a goal-line stand by the Penguins. Dayton, trailing 21-10 early in the fourth quarter, had a first-and-goal at YSU's 1-yard line, and after three plays failed to result in a touchdown, the Flyers decided to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1. Dayton quarterback Will Bardo rolled to his right, and a pass rush forced him to throw quickly. Outside linebacker Ali Cheaib, who was blitzing off the edge, saw Bardo getting ready to release and jumped up and snatched the pass out of the air.
The momentum change was clear.
"Not one player on that defense had any doubt in their mind that we were going to stop them," said Cheaib, whose interception was the first of his career. "Not one man in there shied away from that challenge.
"I felt like that not only helped us, but the offense too."
The offense certainly needed a pick-me-up.
YSU senior Kurt Hess finished 9 of 19 for 73 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions. The second pick set up the first-and-goal at the 1 for the Flyers. Cheaib's grab thwarted that drive, and it appeared to inspire running back Adaris Bellamy and the Penguins' offensive line.
YSU faced a crucial third-and-1 from its own 17-yard line. Bellamy took a pitch to the right side and darted through a gaping hole, racing 80 yards down to the Dayton 3. True freshman Martin Ruiz powered his way in on the next play to put YSU up, 28-10, with 6 minutes, 58 seconds remaining, but Bellamy was the story. He ran for a career-high 208 yards and one touchdown on 17 carries (an 11.9 yards-per-carry average).
"I don't know if I've ever had a run like that before," said Bellamy of the 80-yard jaunt. "That run wasn't me. I felt like I got momentum from everyone on the sideline, everyone on the field - my blockers, the quarterback, everyone. It was just the perfect play. I don't even think that play is designed to hit for 80 yards, but it did."
The defense, which allowed just 270 total yards, forced a three-and-out on the Flyers' next possession to end any chance of a comeback.
The tense moments were ones the Penguins hoped would never happen. They drove 75 yards on 15 plays to open the game, scoring on a 2-yard run by Torrian Pace. But an interception by Hess and a few incompletions in which Hess either missed his target or the receiver ran the wrong route kept YSU from adding to its lead. Penguins' coach Eric Wolford said the Flyers also did some things that YSU wasn't expecting, and the result was some sloppy play by the Penguins.
"We'll take it," Wolford said. "Hopefully we improve tremendously from game one to game two. We've got to play better on both sides of the football. We'll get that addressed and move forward."
Speaking of moving forward, senior punter and Niles High School product Nick Liste sent the ball forward more than he ever had. He booted punts of 64 and 62 yards to change field position early in the game and force the Flyers inside their own 20-yard line. Wolford has said before he believes Liste has a chance to make an NFL roster when his career with YSU is over. He made believers out of a few more people on Thursday.
"It comes down to the simple mechanics of punting," Liste said. "I got a good snap, the guys up front were blocking well, so I was able to focus on my mechanics and do my job."
The fifth-year senior said a student section that was sold provided a much-needed lift for the sluggish Penguins. He also gave a fitting statement to a game that lacked the affirmation YSU was hoping to declare.
"We're satisfied that we won, but at the same time we're not satisfied with how we won," Liste said. "We've got a lot of improvement to do."