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Problems seemingly run deep with Penguin football team

Bo Pelini was thoroughly disgusted with his football team Saturday, saying so several times after a lackluster blowout loss, and it’s becoming apparent the feeling may be mutual.

The total lack of emotion and the uninspired way in which the Penguins played during a 43-17 loss to Indiana State was appalling to anyone watching (except maybe ISU fans), and the postgame press conference was equally alarming — but it did shed some light on what may be at the crux of YSU’s year-long problems.

Pelini has lamented, ad nauseum, about ongoing missed assignments by his players that are occurring during games, and the issues have been especially perplexing because the Penguins haven’t been making the mistakes in practice.

The hot-headed coach said he has called players to the sideline during timeouts or after blunders and asked what happened, and they just stare at him aimlessly with no response. When he does get a response, he said players often reply, “I don’t know.” That leaves Pelini scratching his increasingly hot head, wondering what’s amiss.

After weeks of confusion and empty explanations, one of the team leaders — someone Pelini has lauded since training camp and did again after Saturday’s loss — seemed to point out what could be at the center of it all.

“It’s very frustrating,” replied senior defensive tackle Savon Smith when asked about other players not showing energy for the game. “What’s even more frustrating is that, the leaders on this team, the seniors, we definitely try to get guys together and try to figure out what’s going on. The most frustrating thing is that guys aren’t doing their job. They’re not taking it serious.

“It’s even more frustrating having the coaches look at us and say, ‘Why aren’t you doing that?’ That’s the most frustrating part. We’re really trying to get the team together and build a team, get the team to play together, and the coaches kind of look at you like, ‘Why aren’t you doing this? Why isn’t the team doing this?’ And it’s kind of your fault, but that’s the cause of being a leader. That’s the price you pay. I’m OK with that.”

Smith may be OK with it, but that doesn’t mean everyone else is.

Smith and other seniors can do and say all they want to light a fire under teammates, but if a player isn’t driven by some type of cause, their pleas won’t mean anything. The Penguins must all be on the same page, believing in the same coach, the same direction and having the same goals. That doesn’t seem to be the case.

The bottom line is there is division within the Youngstown State football team.

Some of it seems to stem from certain players agreeing with Pelini’s style while others do not. Smith didn’t say that word for word, but his comments demonstrated an obvious discord between team leaders and coaches. Furthermore, if a coach tells a player what to do during a timeout, and they then go do something else on the ensuing play, as Pelini has described more than once, well, that’s borderline mutiny.

Unfortunately, that’s only part of the divide. Smith went on to describe a potential bridge between players.

“From a defensive perspective, say we’re out there six or seven plays, and then the offense goes out there and gets a three-and-out or they’re not scoring when they’re supposed to, or we feel like they’re not holding up their end of the deal, I hate that feeling,” he said. “Because I don’t want to feel like I’m going against our offense. I don’t want to feel like it’s defense and offense. I want it to be a team. That’s probably the hardest thing. It’s really hard not to get upset at the other side of the ball when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do and helping out the team. It’s really hard.”

That, again, presents an alarming issue.

Infighting between a team can be its undoing. Sure, it’s probably hard not to become disappointed when one side of the ball isn’t doing its job. The thing is, neither has been doing its job consistently this season.

Pelini knows it, and while he has called out the players, he has also accepted blame, as he should. This season is on the verge of spiraling out of control. Suffering one of the most shocking losses in YSU history, to Butler to open the season, and eventually missing the playoffs is one thing, but losing the team — and the fan base — is another. It’s not to say that has happened yet, but judging by Smith’s comments and the team’s actions Saturday, it sure looks like it.

The fan base is another story in itself. The paid attendance was listed at 9,090 Saturday, but there probably weren’t 1,000 fans in the stands. Sure, it was cold, windy and rainy — just a miserable fall day — but it could be 75 and sunny, and people won’t come watch an uninspired team play football.

Pelini himself didn’t want to. Arguably the most fiery, intense, impassioned, and yes, enraged, coach in college football, he couldn’t fathom how a team of his players was so lifeless.

“It’s so outside of my (understanding), like maybe I was beamed down from another planet,” he said. “I can’t even relate to that. I can’t relate to coming out of the tunnel, coming out of the locker room and you could hear a pin drop.”

Not being able to relate seems to be a team-wide problem. If it’s not fixed immediately, it probably won’t be Pelini’s team after this season.

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