Against a lot of odds
Penguins shrug off QB injuries and find a way to win
YOUNGSTOWN — Even Jim Tressel was impressed by this one.
Down to its third-string quarterback, trailing by 10 in the fourth quarter and with absolutely no threat of a passing game, Youngstown State found a way. The Penguins rallied for a thrilling 14-10 comeback victory over Northern Iowa in a critical Missouri Valley Football Conference showdown at Stambaugh Stadium.
“I’ve been coaching a long time, and I’ll tell you what I just told our team: I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud of a group of guys than I am of this team,” Penguins coach Bo Pelini said. “The way they fought. The will. We’ve got a lot of unfinished business, but they earned it tonight — against a lot of odds.”
The 12th-ranked Penguins passed just one time in the fourth quarter, but they ran it 25 times for 95 yards and two touchdowns to stun No. 21 UNI. The second score was a 1-yard run by Martin Ruiz with 28 seconds remaining that gave YSU (5-1, 3-0 MVFC) its first lead. Still, the game wasn’t decided until a UNI Hail Mary attempt was batted down by Kenny Bishop in the end zone as time expired.
“It could have gone a lot of ways, but they kept fighting,” said Pelini, who admitted this was his biggest victory as YSU’s coach.
YSU came back despite losing starting quarterback Ricky Davis (knee) and back-up Trent Hosick (shoulder) to injuries, both in the first half. The Penguins trailed 10-0 entering the fourth quarter and had just 28 yards passing, which is what they finished the game with as well, but YSU’s defense was up to the task. The Penguins held the Panthers (2-4, 1-2) to 173 yards of total offense and still haven’t allowed a rushing TD this season — the only team in the FCS or FBS to hold such a distinction.
Third-string QB Nathan Mays, who didn’t take a single snap with the first-team offense while serving as the scout-team quarterback during the week, helped engineer two game-winning drives. The redshirt freshman completed just 3-of-6 passes for 25 yards and also threw an interception, but he ran for 22 yards on six carries and showed poise in big moments.
“It was definitely out of nowhere,” said Mays of entering a big game in a moment’s notice. “It kind of didn’t hit me till I got hit on the first play. I felt comfortable pretty early, but there were definitely some nerves accompanied with it.”
Mays said the playbook was trimmed to about 10 to 15 plays because of his limited repetitions at quarterback. Most of them, apparently, were runs.
YSU engineered a 22-play, 86-yard drive that took up 11 minutes and 40 seconds, spanning from the third quarter to the fourth. Tevin McCaster capped it with a 1-yard run to cut Northern Iowa’s lead to 10-7 with 11:47 left in the fourth. The Penguins were in the midst of a nine-play drive that had just crossed midfield with a little more than six minutes left in the game when Mays heaved up a deep pass that was intercepted.
The defense, which allowed 20 total yards in the second half, forced another three-and-out to give YSU the ball back with 3:37 left. The Penguins ran the ball 10 straight times and were aided by a personal foul penalty as they drove 53 yards for the winning score. It appeared Ruiz initially scored on third-and-1 from the 3 as he made a great spin move and drove over the goal line, but he was ruled down after an official review. He walked into the end zone on the next play.
“The trust and confidence we have in each other, we knew we were going to come back,” said All-American defensive end Derek Rivers, who gave Tressel a hug before entering the press conference on a night when Youngstown State honored the Penguins’ 1991 national championship team. “We finish. We learned how to finish. That was our problem last year and years before. Even though we were down, we never gave up. Defense picked up the offense, offense picked up the defense.”
The Penguins trailed 10-0 at halftime mainly because of offensive miscues. Davis was injured as he fumbled the ball trying to earn a first down on third-and-6. UNI drove 38 yards and Austin Erthum kicked a 27-yard field goal. The next score came when Davis tried to come back on the next series but threw an interception on the third play that was returned 34 yards for a TD.
YSU only had 78 yards of offense at the half, but its big offensive line seemed to wear down the Panthers, which gave up 159 yards rushing in the second half.
“Don’t panic and execute. Everybody do their job and keep fighting to the end,” said Pelini of what his halftime message was to the team. “That’s all we ask them. I’ll live with outcome one way or the other, as long as you fight, and we fought till the bitter end. I have to give a shoutout to that crowd. … That stadium got juiced up in the fourth quarter and that was fun to see.”
YSU travels to South Dakota State next week. The Jackrabbits upset five-time national champion North Dakota State on Saturday.