CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The main reason the Youngstown State football team was in prime position to upset the University of Illinois was because of its defense.
That statement never would have been uttered a year ago.
The Penguins finished last in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in allowing 410.5 yards per game. The unit crumbled in the final game of the season, a matchup with South Dakota State in which the victor went to the playoffs and the loser did not. South Dakota State won, 42-13.
The 2014 version of the defense looked much different than last year's, and it started with getting on the same page.
"I feel like we're closer together as a unit," said YSU defensive lineman Emmanuel Kromah after the Penguins lost to Illinois, 28-7.
It looked that way too.
Aside from a few blown coverages and a rough fourth quarter, the Penguins silenced an Illinois offense that was expected to be the strength of the team. YSU held the Illini to 172 total yards through three quarters, including 42 on the ground, an area the Penguins struggled with last year. They forced three fumbles and nearly had an interception return for touchdown in the first half, but strong safety Jameel Smith, who stepped in front of a pass, couldn't hold on to a hard-thrown ball. The total yardage increased to 363 yards by game's end, but the defense was placed in a number of tough situations because of bad special teams.
Overall, the difference on 'D' was noticeable.
"We can build on that, and that's something that's encouraging," said YSU coach Eric Wolford before changing the subject and talking about how the Penguins expect to win these types of games. "We've changed our mentality, and that's a complement to our kids. We're not here to collect a check. We want to win these games. We felt like this was a winnable football game. I knew we'd have to play well and execute, and we fell a little bit short."
NICE START: Another reason YSU nearly pulled off the upset was the play of junior Dante Nania. The 6-foot, 200-pound quarterback made his first career start - in front of 36,234 fans - for the Penguins, finishing 11 of 24 for 177 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran for 38 yards on 11 carries.
"I was more anxious than nervous," he said. "We've got to get better on third down, and we have to capitalize when we're in the red zone. We'll take a field goal, but we need to score touchdowns."
SPEAKING OF WHICH: The Penguins were just 5 of 19 on third-down conversions, and while they scored on all four red-zone opportunities, only one was a touchdown.
"You can't win very many football games doing that," Wolford said.
There were several scenarios where the Penguins faced a third down and around 6-to-8 yards to go, and chose to run the football instead of throw it. Nania didn't feel that was the coaching staff not showing confidence in him.
"A lot of those third-and-longs, we had a pass play on and we checked out of it," Nania said. "The coach upstairs (offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery) saw something he liked, and that's what happened. Coach saw something he liked, and that's what he wants to run with."
NOT-SO SPECIAL TEAMS: Two big plays on special teams played major roles in Illinois winning the football game.
A 67-yard kick return with 13:15 left in the second quarter gave the Illini field position at the Penguins' 33 and set up UI's first touchdown, an 8-yard pass from Wes Lunt to Jon Davis.
The bigger miscue came early in the third quarter. YSU attempted a punt that gave punter Joey Cejudo the option of running for the first down or kicking it. He ran to his right to survey the field and then tried a rugby-style a punt, but he booted the ball right into the backside of Jacob Wood, who was the lead blocker on the play. The ball flew backwards 15 yards and rolled out of bounds at the YSU 35. That set up Illinois' second touchdown and gave them a 14-9 lead with 13:58 remaining in the fourth quarter.
"We had been shifting around the punt team up until that point to see if it (the fake) was there," Wolford said. "We felt strongly that it was there. I'll second guess myself on that play call for the rest of my life probably. I didn't listen to my intuition. I normally go for it on fourth down."
WOLFORD SIGNS EXTENSION: YSU athletic director Ron Strollo confirmed through a text message that Wolford officially signed an extension to remain as the Penguins coach. The deal was said to be a two-year extension without a change in salary, but other reports indicate the contract only goes through February of 2016 and that YSU has buyout clauses in the agreement.