Penguins in playoff mode with must-win 2 weeks

YOUNGSTOWN — Once again, it’s November, and it’s playoff time for the Youngstown State football team — just not literally.

The Penguins (6-3, 4-2 Missouri Valley Football Conference) head into the final two weeks of the regular season likely needing to win both to secure a playoff spot. Qualifying for the postseason hasn’t happened since 2006 despite multiple opportunities almost identical to this one.

“In my mind, the playoffs start Saturday at noon,” said YSU coach Bo Pelini of the Penguins’ home matchup with Southern Illinois (3-6, 1-5). “We’ll be ready to go come Saturday, I promise you.”

The 15th-ranked Penguins are reeling a bit after losing two of their last three, including last week’s 24-3 loss to fourth-ranked North Dakota State. The defeat again emphasized YSU’s offensive woes. The Penguins have scored one offensive touchdown in the last three games, a rather meaningless score in the final minutes of a 24-10 loss to South Dakota State.

Pelini said during his postgame news conference last week that“big changes” are coming, but he did not specify what those changes are at his weekly news conference on Tuesday.

“There are some things we’re tweaking,” he said. “The proof will be in the pudding.”

NO DIVISION: Another reason the offensive struggles are disappointing is because the defense is playing at a championship level.

YSU leads the MVFC and is eighth in the nation in allowing 281.9 yards of offense per game. It also leads the league and is sixth in the nation in giving up 16.4 points per game.

The offense has routinely failed to take advantage of opportunities set up by the defense and has put the defense in bad situations against the MVFC’s best teams. The Penguins are adamant that the issues haven’t led to any division within the team.

“It’s a family here,” junior offensive lineman Justin Spencer said. “Offense, defense, special teams — everyone plays (together). We’re not going to bash each other. They (the defense) pick us up. If we’re having a bad drive or a bad series or whatever and come off the field, the older guys, Derek (Rivers) and Avery (Moss), come by and tell us to keep playing and keep doing our thing. We’ve just got to execute and play as hard as we can.”

QB CAROUSEL: The quarterback situation remains difficult to address. Hunter Wells has played the last two games but has yet to throw a touchdown pass compared to three interceptions. Redshirt freshman Nathan Mays played at times to add a run-pass threat, but neither has been overly effective.

It’s unclear whether Ricky Davis, who started six of the first seven games, will return from a concussion as Pelini said he’s still in “concussion protocol.”

Pelini insists that the offensive issues shouldn’t be pinned on the QBs.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “we’ve got to play better around our quarterbacks.”

INJURIES: A few different Penguins suffered injuries against the Bison. Place-kicker Zak Kennedy, a Cardinal Mooney graduate who has had an up-and-down sophomore season, has what Pelini called “some kind of a quad strain.” He made a 32-yard field goal against NDSU but missed one from 34 before coming out of the game. His replacement, Nate Needham, missed a 29-yard attempt.

Jameel Smith also came out against the Bison with an undisclosed injury. Warren G. Harding graduate Jalyn Smith stepped in and “played well,” according to Pelini, who does expect Smith to return this week. Davis, as mentioned, remains in concussion protocol.