Penguins punch Pitt

YSU rallies in second half, but Panthers prevail in overtime

Special to Tribune Chronicle / Youngstown State University, Ron Stevens Youngstown State defensive end Justus Reed celebrates after a sack and subsequent fumble recovery during Saturday’s 28-21 overtime loss against Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in downtown Pittsburgh.

PITTSBURGH — An overtime loss after a thrilling, improbable comeback doesn’t change much for Youngstown State.

The Penguins, an FCS school, were heavy underdogs to the bigger FBS-power Pittsburgh Panthers. While an interception in overtime sealed the 28-21 victory for Pitt, the loss won’t play a big role in whether YSU continues its recent surge and makes a return to the FCS playoffs.

That was the message Penguins coach Bo Pelini delivered to his players after a gut-wrenching loss at Heinz Field.

“It hurts, but it won’t change what has to happen tomorrow,” YSU coach Bo Pelini said. “Had we won the football game, what happens tomorrow doesn’t change. The guys in that locker room understand that. They’re hurting. They played their hearts out, but you’ve got to man-up and take it for what it was. We can’t control what just happened. We can control what happens going forward. That process starts (today).”

Yeah, but it sure would’ve been nice to upset Pitt on their home field.

Special to Tribune Chronicle / Youngstown State University, Ron Stevens YSU receiver Christian Turner takes off toward the end zone after catching one of his two fourth-quarter touchdown receptions against Pitt, helping the Penguins rally from a 21-0 halftime deficit.

The Penguins, who were dominated in the first half in virtually every phase of the game, owned the second half, scoring 21 unanswered points in the third and fourth quarters to shock the Panthers and send the game to overtime.

While the second half belonged to YSU, overtime went to Pitt.

The Panthers scored on a great leaping 11-yard catch by Jester Weah on the first drive of the extra session, and they intercepted a Hunter Wells pass on first down from the Pitt 13-yard line. Wells was trying to throw the ball away, but safety Bricen Garner picked off the errant throw to seal the victory.

“I knew nobody was open, and I was trying to throw the ball away, and it didn’t get there,” Wells said. “That’s on me. If you need someone to blame, it’s my fault. I’ll take complete credit for that.”

Wells also could take credit for part of the comeback. The senior was exceptional throughout the game, completing 18-of-32 passes for 311 yards and two touchdowns.

Both TDs came in a riveting fourth quarter and went to true freshman running back Christian Turner — on what looked to be the same play. The first was for 25 yards and cut the Panthers’ lead to 21-14 with 6:10 remaining in the game. After a strip-sack by recent Florida transfer Justus Reed gave YSU the ball back at the Pitt 42, Wells again hit Turner down the sideline, this time for 42 yards, to tie the game at 21 with 3:35 remaining.

The Panthers drove 55 yards on 11 plays, but freshman place kicker Alex Kessman missed a 28-yard field goal attempt (his second miss of the game) as time expired, which set up overtime.

“We were down 21-0, and we came out (in the second half), and it just shows what kind of heart and passion is on this team,” Wells said. “We’re really resilient. We’re not going to back down; we’re not going to stop playing until the final whistle. It’s a tough loss, but it shows a lot about this team — how we can play when we put our mind to it. It shows the character.”

The Penguins looked overmatched by Pitt in the first two quarters.

The Panthers had the ball for 20:17 of the 30-minute half. They ran — at will — for 146 yards (compared to negative 1 for YSU) and threw for another 131. Running back Qadree Ollison ran for two short scores and fellow back A.J. Davis added another.

The Penguins’ defense looked helpless.

A halftime challenge from Pelini and his brother, Carl, YSU’s co-defensive coordinator, woke up a group that was one of the best in the FCS last year but has several new faces on it in 2017.

“In the second half, coach Carl and coach Bo said we’ve got to be more physical,” said YSU linebacker Armand Dellovade about a halftime talk. “We responded to what they said. We came out, we were physical, we tackled well, so it just shows the type of defense we can be.”

They can show their home crowd that potential as the Penguins play Robert Morris at 2 p.m. at Stambaugh Stadium on Sept. 9. YSU has won eight straight in Youngstown, going unbeaten at home last year.