Ugly, but still a victory

YOUNGSTOWN – More than 15,000 people left Youngstown State’s Stambaugh Stadium happy, and it wasn’t just because the Penguins beat South Dakota, 30-20, in their Missouri Valley Football Conference opener.

When YSU junior defensive back Jalyn Powell, a Warren G. Harding graduate, picked off a pass and returned it 21 yards for a touchdown, the 15th-ranked Penguins (3-1, 1-0) reached the 30-point barrier (after Zak Kennedy booted the extra point). That means any fan with a ticket stub can pick up a free cheese pizza at Rise Pies.

Maybe Bo Pelini doesn’t like pizza because he was one of the few people who wasn’t at all pleased following YSU’s eighth-straight victory in a MVFC opener.

“Not what I was looking for,” Pelini said. “I don’t take a whole heck of a lot of positives out of this football game.”

The victory over the Coyotes (1-4, 0-1) wasn’t always pretty, but YSU’s defense made sure it was, indeed, a victory. The defense forced three turnovers and held one of the best rushing quarterbacks in the FCS – coming into the game – to 17 yards.

Powell, who transferred to YSU from Michigan State before last season, sealed the deal with his pick-six. USD trailed by 10 at the time and had just got the ball back following a YSU punt. There was just 2:37 remaining in the game..

“I was just being a player and saw the ball coming my way. I wanted to make a play so bad,” Powell said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve got in the end zone.”

It had been a while since the Penguins saw the end zone too.

They entered the half leading 20-3 and had multiple chances to put the game well out of reach, but four turnovers (two interceptions, two fumbles) along with penalties at the worst of times led to missed opportunities. YSU made seven trips to the red zone (scoring on five of them), but most of the points came from Kennedy, who kicked three field goals.

“Ya think?,” quipped Pelini when a reporter mentioned leaving points on the field. “We didn’t play up to our standard in any phase of the game.”

The good news was three key players returned from injury, most notably starting quarterback Ricky Davis. The junior was prolific in the first half, completing 10-of-12 passes for 232 yards, but he and the rest of the YSU offense sputtered in the final two quarters. Davis threw two picks, running back Martin Ruiz was stuffed on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line and safety Jameel Smith picked off a pass but fumbled it back to the Coyotes on the return.

YSU was outscored 17-10 in the second half.

“We can play so much better,” said Penguins defensive end Avery Moss, who led YSU with seven tackles but admitted the defense struggled at times with the rapid pace of South Dakota’s hurry-up offense. “We have to get in unison on stuff like that, with the tempo. We have to all be on one page, and I don’t think anyone can stop us in this division.”

Again, not all was bad. Standout running back Jody Webb returned from an ankle injury and played the entire game, as did guard Brock Eisenhuth, one of the Penguins’ best offensive lineman who missed the first three weeks with a broken bone in his foot. Oh, and YSU won.

Ruiz scored twice in the first half on runs of 1 and 8 yards, and Kennedy kicked field goals of 26 and 28. Maybe most impressive was the defense’s ability to bottle up Coyotes’ QB Chris Streveler, who came in averaging 115 rushing yards per game and had a combined 13 touchdowns rushing and passing.

“We took pride in ourselves that we weren’t going to let him come in and run all over us,” said Moss, who had one of four sacks. “He averages like 120 (yards) rushing a game, and as a d-line especially, we take great pride in what we do, and we had to stop that. We wanted to put a hurting on the quarterback.”

Mission accomplished.

The Penguins travel to Illinois State next week. YSU hasn’t won in Normal, Ill., since 2006.

“We have a lot to work on,” Ruiz said. “We didn’t play to the best of our ability. We’ll get better for next week.”