WHEN you go to Big Ten country, you expect a Big Ten team, a Big Ten crowd and a Big Ten butt kicking.
Youngstown State only got one, and it wasn't in the form anyone was thinking.
The University of Illinois is not one of the marquee programs in the Big Ten, but the Illini have been competitive through the years, reaching the Rose Bowl as recent as 2008 (a team with now-YSU coach Eric Wolford coaching the offensive line).
The current U of I isn't anywhere near that caliber (evident by the sparse crowd of 36,234 in a 60,760 capacity stadium), but the Illini are not as bad as they appeared on Saturday either. On the same note, Youngstown State probably can't hang with many other Big Ten programs, but the fact that the Penguins were nearly able to upset Illinois shows progress for a team that appeared to be falling off the national radar in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Last year, the Penguins were embarrassed by Michigan State, 55-17. That wasn't surprising considering MSU finished No. 3 in the nation, but the concerning part was how YSU was dismantled and completely overmatched. There shouldn't be such a discrepancy between FCS and the Football Bowl Subdivision, and YSU showed that maybe there isn't on Saturday in a 28-17 loss to Illinois in which the Penguins led by three midway through the fourth quarter. Maybe, just maybe, they're closing the gap in talent level, especially on defense.
Coaches and players have constantly said that first-year defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant simplified the scheme so the defense could play faster instead of thinking so much. That didn't appear to be the case until Saturday, when YSU swarmed to the football, blanketed receivers and got penetration at the point of attack.
The offense also looked as strong - if not - stronger than Illinois' defense. The line pushed people around to create holes for the running backs and gave the quarterback time to throw the football. The receivers got open and the running backs finished runs. There wasn't any inferiority complex or intimidation. The hard part is not over-exaggerating the game.
It was a nice performance against a Big Ten team that looked more like an FCS team. In truth, YSU should've won. They played better in most phases, but special teams and a bad fourth quarter cost the Penguins a victory. Some might call those "little things," but it's those type of issues that have left YSU on the outside looking come playoff time.
Two years ago, YSU beat Pittsburgh, 31-17, in the season opener and appeared on sure-fire path to the postseason, but inconsistency and a brutal month of October kept them out. Point being, there is plenty of work to be done, especially on special teams. If you haven't seen, heard or read about punter Joey Cejudo's "butt punt" yet, check out the other two YSU stories in today's paper or look up "butt punt" on YouTube because it was rather comical. But keep in mind, this loss is not on Cejudo, and it's hard to even blame him for the play. It was fourth-and-1 on the 50, either go for it with an offense that ran at will against Illinois or punt the ball (Wolford admitted he should have went for it).
Cejudo's gaffe wasn't the only special teams error. A big kick return led to an Illinois touchdown in the second quarter, and furthermore, up until last year, the Penguins were bad on special teams. They moved Bryant from special teams coordinator to defense, and they're hoping a combined effort form two assistants can make up for the loss. Wolford better hope it works out. Former YSU coach Jim Tressel used to call a punt "the most important play in football," and while it's unfair to compare him and Wolford, the emphasis on special teams from a four-time national champion should be noted.
So what do you take from a close loss to Illinois? 1. The Penguins should have the ability to compete for a playoff berth. 2. Illinois coach Tim Beckman might be the first Big Ten coach to be fired. 3. Always wear a butt pad when playing organized football.