Scouting Report: Week 11

A strange year comes to a close today, ending like so many others over the past 18 years — without a playoff berth.

The on-again, off-again Youngstown State football team concludes a puzzling season on the road against Missouri Valley Football Conference foe Illinois State (5-5, 2-5).

The Penguins (4-6, 3-4) are on the uptick after a dominating, 31-10, victory over Northern Iowa last week. YSU is playing its best football of the season, but it’s too little, too late for a team that has yet to earn consecutive victories — a blatant display of their inconsistencies this season.

The Redbirds have been quite the opposite, with a strong start — ranked No. 8 in the nation in October – followed by a disastrous finish in which they have lost their last four games. Both teams are out of playoff contention, so pride and a winning percentage are the only things on the line today.

QUARTERBACKS

YSU — YSU coach Bo Pelini hasn’t divulged who will start today. Senior Montgomery VanGorder got the nod last week, but that was due, in part, to fellow QB Nathan Mays dealing with a variety of injuries. VanGorder is the better passer of the two, while Mays is the stronger runner. There’s a chance both play to keep the Redbirds on their heels.

ILS — The Redbirds have dealt with their own issues at quarterback. Starter Brady Davis returned from an injury last week and appears healthy. He’s been good when healthy, throwing 18 TDs to five interceptions (two last week, however). If he can’t go, Jake Kolbe, who started the past two years before losing the job in camp, will start in his place. Both are prototypical dropback passers.

EDGE — Even

RUNNING BACKS

YSU — Senior running back Tevin McCaster caps what has been an incredible career today. A walk-on from nearby New Castle High School in Pennsylvania, McCaster has become one of the Penguins all-time greats, ranking seventh at YSU in career touchdowns (35) and ninth in rushing yards (2,828). He’s coming off a 136-yard, three-TD performance last week against Northern Iowa.

ILS — Junior James Robinson is one of the league’s best backs. The 5-10, 220-pound all-conference pick has 1,034 yards and 10 TDs on 82 carries (5.7-yard average). He and fellow running back Markel Smith (562 yards, four TDs) embarrassed YSU last season, with running for more than 100 yards in a 35-0 whooping in Youngstown. They’ll likely be the focus for the Penguins defense.

EDGE — Even

RECEIVERS

YSU — The receiving corps has been hard to figure out. Different players have stepped up — and then disappeared — week to week. Last week, Darius Shackelford was the go-to player, with 73 yards and a TD. The previous two weeks, it was Jermiah Braswell, who didn’t catch a pass against UNI. While it’s nice to have different receivers making plays, there hasn’t been any consistency with this group.

ILS — Illinois State also possesses one of the conference’s best receivers in Spencer Schnell. The 5-9, 185-pound senior leads the MVFC with 63 receptions and 847 yards. He also has nine TDs. Andrew Edgar is another threat on the outside, with 41 catches, 704 yards and four TDs. He’s averaging 17.2 yards per catch.

EDGE — ILS

OFFENSIVE LINE

YSU — The line arguably had its best game of the season, not allowing a sack and dominating one of the best defensive fronts in the conference. All-conference guard Gavin Wiggins moved to tackle and played well against fellow all-MVFC selection Rickey Neal. It took a while, but the line finally came together.

ILS — The Redbirds line is as big as YSU has encountered this year, led by 6-10, 315-pound all-MVFC selection Drew Himmelman. Illinois State was one of the league’s best running teams for much of the season, but they’ve been inconsistent the past few games, and the battle in the trenches will be pivotal in whether that changes or not. A senior-laden line has allowed 18 sacks, sixth best in the conference.

EDGE — Even

DEFENSIVE LINE

YSU — The d-line has been the biggest bright spot this year and is coming off another strong performance. The defense held UNI to just 192 total yards (73 passing, 119 rushing). Senior tackle Savon Smith is having a great final season, with a team-high six sacks. Junior Shereif Bynum had a breakout year, leading YSU with 10.5 tackles for loss. Senior DE Johnson Louigene, sophomore DT Wesley Thompson and junior DE Malik Richmond have been steady all season as well.

ILS — The front three of the Redbirds is led by Iowa transfer Romeo McKnight, a 6-5, 250-pound sophomore. He’s tied for the team high in TFLs (9) and leads in sacks (3). As a team, Illinois State is last in the MVFC with just 13 sacks. The have been stout against the run, allowing just 120 yards per game — second only to North Dakota State.

EDGE — YSU

LINEBACKERS

YSU — Another senior who will go down as one of the all-time greats at YSU is linebacker Armand Dellovade, a four-year starter who has over 326 career tackles (12th best all time). He leads YSU with 91 stops — 30 better than the next closest player. He’s normally the only three-down LB for the Penguins, who often deploy five defensive backs.

ILS — Linebacker Zackary Mathews is having a great senior year after hardly seeing the field in his first three seasons. He leads ILS with 81 tackles and also has 5.5 TFLs. Outside linebacker Tuvone Clark (6-2, 250) is tied for the team high in TFLs with nine and has 45 tackles. Ty DeForest adds another 43 stops as well as two interceptions. They’re a big part of what has been a dominant run defense.

EDGE — ILS

SECONDARY

YSU — The improvement of safeties Avery Larkin and Chrispin Lee cannot be overstated. They were blamed for most of YSU’s defensive problems early in the year, but the secondary has been one of the league’s best in the second half of the season. Corners Bryce Gibson and DJ Smalls have started all 10 games and both return next year. Gibson is a budding star.

ILS — The Redbirds also are second in the conference in pass defense, allowing 189 yards per game (again trailing only NDSU). Their 13 interceptions are tied for second best in the MVFC as well. Safety Luther Kirk’s four interceptions are tied for tops in the league. He’s also second on the Redbirds with 55 tackles. Corner Devin Taylor has three INTs and 43 stops. Strong safety Mitchell Brees has 42 tackles and two picks.

EDGE — ILS

SPECIALISTS

YSU — Zak Kennedy returned to place-kicking duties and made a 28-yard field goal (no field goal is an easy task in Stambaugh Stadium). It’s hard to know if he’ll stay the starter or Grant Gonya will again replace him. Punter Mark Schuler has improved throughout the year. He landed three inside the UNI 20-yard line last week.

ILS — Redbirds punter J.T. Bohlken is one of the league’s best, averaging 43.2 yards per boot (No. 2 in the MVFC) and landing 19 inside opponent’s 20-yard line — the most in the league. ILS has used to place kickers, both making 50-percent of their field goal tries without one longer than 38 yards.

EDGE — Even

PREDICTION

Two evenly matched, equally disappointed teams fittingly face one another to finish off two tough seasons.

The Redbirds probably never thought they’d be in this position after starting 5-1, including a dominant win over Colorado State of the FBS, and being ranked in the top 10 for much of the season. They’ve fallen apart the last four weeks and are out of the playoff picture after losing to Indiana State last week.

The Penguins never gave such false hope as they struggled from the outset in 2018. They’re looking to end the season on a high note and win back-to-back games for the first time this season.

As is often the case with YSU, being able to run the football is the key. Their offense is predicated on play-action passes and wearing teams down with powerful run game. It also leads to long drives, keeping the defense fresh. Illinois State is built similarly, so the battle in the trenches is going to be crucial. YSU has yet to earn a road victory this year. That should change today.

YSU, 27-20.

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