Nearly an upset

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Eric Wolford’s instincts told him to go for it on fourth-and-1 near midfield late in the third quarter in a matchup with the University of Illinois.

The Youngstown State University football coach believed the Penguins, who led by two at the time, could gain one yard and possibly put together a scoring drive, but with how well the YSU defense was playing, he fought that urge.

Afterward, he was fighting himself.

“I probably should have went for it on fourth-and-1 at midfield,” Wolford said. “That was a mistake on my part. I didn’t go with my intuition, so it’s a lesson learned. I assured my team that I won’t make that mistake again. I’ll put the offense back out there and see if we can get a yard.”

The horrifying result of the play was one that overshadowed an otherwise impressive performance by the Penguins, and it sparked the Illini to a 28-17 victory at Memorial Stadium.

Instead of going for it, YSU, leading 9-7 at the time, attempted a punt that gave punter Joey Cejudo the option of running or kicking it. He rolled to his right and moved forward a few steps before trying a rugby-style punt, but it instead went off personal protector Jacob Wood’s backside and out of bounds 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

The “butt punt,” as it’s already known as on the internet, gave Illinois the ball at YSU’s 35 and set up the Illini’s second touchdown, giving them a 14-9 lead with 13:58 remaining in the fourth quarter. While YSU retook the lead, the Penguins couldn’t finish the upset bid as Illinois scored twice more in the fourth quarter to pull away.

“We just didn’t execute it at the end of the day, and made a poor decision to punt the ball right behind the guy,” said Wolford of the of the botched punt.

The Penguins outplayed Illinois (1-0) for the first three quarters – outgaining the Illini, forcing more turnovers and dominating time of possession. It didn’t matter in the end.

Illinois, which struggled mightily on offense for much of the game, found a rhythm in the fourth quarter. UI quarterback Wes Lunt was 15 for 27 passing for 130 yards and one touchdown through three quarters, but the 6-foot-5 Oklahoma State-transfer went 9 of 11 for 155 yards and three TDs in the final 15 minutes.

“To be honest, I never felt there was a doubt we were going to win this football game because of the way the football team responded,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “There wasn’t a question that we could win this football game and should win this football game.”

The Penguins had just regrouped and went up 17-14 on a 2-yard plunge by running back Martin Ruiz, who ran for 121 yards on 31 carries. His TD with 10:57 remaining in the fourth was set up by a quick screen to Andrew Williams that resulted in a 61-yard gain. The momentum appeared to swing back in the Penguins’ favor after YSU quarterback Dante Nania – making his first career start – weaved his way through the defense on a two-point conversion that put YSU up by three, but that’s when Lunt caught fire.

He connected with running back Josh Ferguson on a 15-yard touchdown strike over the middle to give Illinois a 21-17 lead. He added a clinching 29-yard pass to a wide-open Martize Barr to put the Illini up, 28-17, with 2:33 left in the game. The Penguins blitzed on the play, and a miscommunication left Barr free down the sideline. Earlier in the drive, Derek Rivers sacked Lunt and stripped the ball from his hands. It squirted out of the hands of one player and an Illinois offensive lineman dived on just a fraction of a second before YSU could recover.

A YSU defense that played extremely well for three quarters appeared fatigued because of the no-huddle offense by the Illini and 80-degree weather that had plenty of humidity to go with it.

“We were doing real good – reading our keys and everything,” YSU linebacker Dubem Nwadiogbu said. “And as the game went on, in the second half and the fourth quarter, we just started dying down. We got tired because they kept pushing the tempo, so we didn’t attack it right like we were supposed to.”

Youngstown State outgained Illinois 380 to 363. The Penguins held the ball for 40 minutes and 1 second compared to just 19:59 for the Illini. They forced three fumbles and recovered one and didn’t commit a turnover of their own. And yet, a loss is still a loss.

“We did it to ourselves really,” YSU defensive lineman Emmanuel Kromah said. “Too many mistakes.

“We played a Big Ten school, and we went toe-to-toe with them. But I also feel like that’s not going to be the best o-line or the best team we play this year, so we’re just getting warmed up.”