Scouting Report: Week 9

Not many people expected Youngstown State to be playing for pride instead of a playoff berth when the season started, but that’s the scenario after a four-game losing streak.

The Penguins’ 35-0 loss to Illinois State last Saturday ended their playoff hopes. YSU (3-5, 1-4 Missouri Valley Football Conference) hopes a matchup with winless Indiana State (0-8, 0-5) is just what they need to at least get a lost season back on track.

The Sycamores started off the year with close losses in three of their first four games, but turnovers (20) and a leaky defense (allowing 42.8 points) have led to several blowouts in the latter portion of the schedule, losing their last four games by 20-or-more points.

YSU is coming off an embarrassing shutout in a game that held major playoff implications. Coach Bo Pelini ripped his team following the game, and he and the Penguins expect a bounce-back performance after picking up the pieces from a rare dud.

QUARTERBACKS

YSU — For the second straight year, the Penguins turn to their third-string quarterback for the final stretch of the season. Ricky Davis, who actually started the year at receiver, starts after injuries to original starter Hunter Wells and then backup Nate Mays. Davis possesses a strong arm, but his accuracy is erratic. His elusiveness and scrambling is his best asset, but Indiana State is likely aware of that and will do what it can to keep him in the pocket. Backing him up could be former Ursuline quarterback Chris Durkin, who was the third-string tight end last week but might be forced into action if an injury occurs, according to Pelini. Durkin was initially recruited to Virginia Tech as a QB before switching positions and then transferring to YSU.

ISU — Junior Isaac Harker and redshirt freshman Cade Sparks have shared time at quarterback, and neither has been overly effective. Their numbers are similar, with Sparks completing 58-of-122 passes for 828 yards, five TDs and four interceptions, and Harker, the incumbent starter, completed 53-of-95 for 639, three TDs and four interceptions. Harker was honorable-mention all MVFC last year, but he nor Sparks have a lot to work with considering the youth and lack of talent at ISU. First-year coach Curt Mallory also is attempting to implement a new system.

EDGE — Even

RUNNING BACKS

YSU — Probably the biggest problem during YSU’s losing streak is the lack of a running game. Not all the blame can be placed on a struggling offensive line. Running back Tevin McCaster, who leads the Penguins with 656 yards and nine TDs, has just 58 yards in his last two games after averaging 93 in the first six. The hot start of true freshman Christian Turner has cooled off considerably, as he has 33 yards in the past two contests after averaging 54 in the first six. That duo must get going for YSU’s offense to find its rhythm.

ISU — Indiana State ranks second to last in the conference in rushing yards with 842. The Sycamores also scored just five TDs on the ground. Senior LeMonte Booker leads the team with 624 yards and four TDs. He’s been slightly ineffective the last two weeks, with much of his 108 combined yards coming in mop-up duty. Freshman Titus McCoy, who ran for 48 yards on six carries last week, could play more if coach Mallory wants to see if he’s the back of their future.

EDGE — YSU

RECEIVERS

YSU — The “carousel of quarterbacks,” as Pelini called it, has led to obvious issues in the pass game. Timing and routes seem a bit off, and the big plays that complemented the once-powerful run game have vanquished. Drops at inopportune times and an inability to create separation at others has frustrated the receiving corps. A talented group could turn it around quickly, but all facets of the offense are going to have to get back on track for that to happen.

ISU — ISU tight end Jacquet McClendon (6-1, 235) is fifth in the MVFC with 43 receptions, but his 10.7 yards-per-catch average is one of the lowest of receivers with 30 or more receptions. He also has three TDs. Receiver Bob Pugh is more of a down-field threat, as he’s averaging 27 yards per grab (568 yards and three TDs on 21 catches). Booker is a decent receiver out of the backfield with 12 grabs or 79 yards and one TD.

EDGE — Even

OFFENSIVE LINE

YSU — A beleaguered offensive line didn’t show much progress against Illinois State. They’ve allowed 31 sacks, which ranks YSU 118th out of 123 FCS teams. Maybe even worse is that YSU has 131 rushing yards in its last two games after being one of the nation’s top rushing teams. The line returned three starters from last year and has the talent to succeed, and the failure to do so seems to have both coaches and players perplexed. The hope is they can get back on track against one of the league’s worst defenses.

ISU — The Sycamores haven’t been too bad protecting the quarterback as far as sacks go, giving up 15, but the line has struggled to help generate a rushing attack. If that’s an issue today for ISU, expect plenty of blitzes to rattle two struggling quarterbacks. With four sophomores sprinkled in with one senior, the inexperience up front could hurt Indiana State.

EDGE — Even

DEFENSIVE LINE

YSU — The Penguins have had problems stopping the run the last few games, and last week was one of its worst showings — allowing two different 100-yard rushers. The line isn’t the sole reason for the cause, but they’ve had their problems. YSU has one sack in its last three games, and if the line can’t get a push against another big offensive front, the defensive struggles could persist.

ISU — As much as YSU has struggled to pressure the quarterback, Indiana State has been worse, with just 12 sacks (second-to-last in the conference). The Sycamores have some talent, mainly with Northern Illinois transfer Rex Mosley, who leads the line with two sacks. They’re a bit undersized up front, which could be a break for a YSU o-line that has faced big, strong fronts the last few weeks.

EDGE — YSU

LINEBACKERS

YSU — The missed tackles also plaguing the defense were again evident against Illinois State. The Sycamores may be winless, but if the “fundamental” issues, as Pelini called them, continue, a defense that was expected to be one of the MVFC’s best will have its problems with ISU.

ISU — The Sycamore linebackers have been busy this year. Outside linebacker Jonas Griffith leads ISU with 74 tackles, and MLB Katrell Moss has 72, which is 24 more than the next player. Griffith also leads Indiana State in tackles-for-loss (6.5) and sacks (3), and Moss has 5.5 TFLs.

EDGE — YSU

SECONDARY

YSU — The pass defense has been solid most of the year. The play of safeties Jalyn Powell, YSU’s leading tackler with 62, and Kyle Hegedus (60 stops) has been a definite bright spot. Corners Billy Nicoe Hurst and Brice Gibson, a true freshman, are both first-year starters bu have played well. They, too, must accept some of the blame for missed open-field tackles, however.

ISU — Indiana State is last in the conference in pass defense, allowing 301 yards per game and 25 touchdowns for the season. They do have six interceptions and are led by junior corner Rondell Green, who has nine pass break-ups and two interceptions.

EDGE — YSU

SPECIALISTS

YSU — Punter Mark Schuler is averaging 42.2 yards per kick, fourth best in the conference and two yards off the top spot. Place kicker Zak Kennedy is 6-for-10 on field goal tries, with a long of 39. The Penguins have been solid in coverage, not allowing a TD, but they have yet to break one as well.

ISU — Place kicker Jerry Nunez was a preseason all-conference pick, after a big season in 2016. He’s 7-of-10 this year, with a long of 43. He’s 10-for-12 on field goals of 40-plus yards over the last two seasons. Punter Thomas Bouldin also is having a good year, averaging 42.9 yards per kick. The Sycamores have allowed one return for a TD on the year.

EDGE — Even

PREDICTION

It’s been a miserable two weeks for the Penguins, but they’ve faced some of the best teams in the FCS. Indiana State is not one of those teams, to put it lightly.

The Sycamores don’t possess near the talent of YSU and have been dominated lately. That said, if YSU plays uninspired like it did last week and allows Indiana State to stick around in this game, anything is possible.

Expect the Penguins to come back with a vengeance — in part to avoid Pelini’s wrath — but mainly to show last week was a fluke performance.

YSU, 38-10.

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