Defensive prowess: Penguins tighten up ‘D’ in annual spring game

YOUNGSTOWN – A defense that’s taken a lot of hits over the past three years dealt out a few of its own in Youngstown State University’s annual Red-White Spring Game.

The White Team, which inherited most of the defensive starters, may have lost, 17-10, but it was a win for a unit that’s been heavily criticized during the tenure of Youngstown State University coach Eric Wolford.

The White defense made two interceptions, five tackles-for-loss and forced and recovered a fumble. The secondary was especially impressive, holding three-year starting quarterback Kurt Hess to 10-of-21 passing, 86 yards and zero touchdowns.

Wolford, who boasted about the improvement of the defense throughout spring practices, said the performance wasn’t surprising.

“Anytime you can create turnovers, it’s going to give you a great opportunity to win football games,” said Wolford, who’s now entering his fourth year as coach. “You get what you emphasize, and that’s something we’ve always believed in.”

Starting corners Julius Childs and Dale Peterman, an Ursuline High School graduate, played exceptional on the outside.

Childs made an interception, and Peterman delivered one of the biggest hits of the game with a crushing blow to receiver Michael Wheary, who fumbled the ball away to the White Team on the play. Overall, the Red Team (which possessed the starting offense) amassed 140 total yards and one touchdown. That 2-yard TD run by Warren G. Harding graduate Demond Hymes came after an interception by the Red defense gave it the ball inside the 5-yard line.

Peterman said the entire defense made huge strides during the spring. Last year was the first season under defensive coordinator Joe Tresey, who implemented a different system that the Penguins struggled to understand.

“Everybody had to adjust to the new system, and it was going to take a little time to get comfortable with it, but as you see now here, we’re definitely comfortable with it now,” he said. “It’s a lot easier when you know exactly what you’re doing. You can play a lot faster once you know what assignments you’re doing. I think last year there was a little bit of confusion, so guys were hesitant because if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re not going to play as fast as you can.”

The secondary ranked last in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2012 when it made a league-low four interceptions and allowed a conference-high 213.6 yards per game. And it wasn’t the only area of the defense to play well. Defensive end Derek Rivers made a great play on an attempted screen pass as he tipped the ball and then snatched it out of the air, giving the starting offense the ball at the 2-yard line. The Red Team, which consisted mainly of the second-team defense, made 11 tackles for loss, eight sacks, forced a fumble and also grabbed two interceptions as it deployed a number of stunts and blitzes. While those numbers may be a bit inflated as it faced the No. 2 offense, the performance was a positive one for a team that struggled to make big plays on defense last season.

“You’re never going to win unless you play great defense. You look at any team in history, anywhere, anytime – you have to play great defense,” Wolford said. “I thought our secondary played very well, and our secondary has been scrutinized since I’ve been here, so they deserved it.”

One of the standouts for the Red defense was junior strong safety Aaron Edwards (another Ursuline grad), who scooped up a fumbled handoff and rumbled 22 yards for a touchdown to open the second half. Rivers, who made the pick on the screen pass, also recovered a fumble, made two sacks, two tackles-for-loss and broke up a pass. Junior defensive end Nate Cox led all players with three sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss.

“We’re trying to get more aggressive as a defense,” Peterman said. “We’re coming up and making plays, everyone’s running to the ball and we’re getting turnovers. Since the beginning of the spring, we’ve gotten better at all those aspects.”

The Penguins hope the improvement continues in the fall.