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Penguins set for stiff conference competition

6 MVFC foes named to Athlon Preseason Top 25

Correspondent file photo / Robert Hayes Youngstown State linebacker Malachi Newell tackles UNI’s Dom Williams during the second half of a 21-0 loss at Stambaugh Stadium in February.

The schedule certainly won’t relent for Youngstown State during the fall 2021 campaign.

As the Penguins look to rebound from a 1-6 mark during the unusual spring season forced by COVID-19, they will again face stiff competition within the Missouri Valley Football Conference during their upcoming fall slate.

Six MVFC teams made the Preseason Athlon Top 25, including four in the top 10.

That should come as no surprise since five MVFC teams qualified for the spring playoffs — the most of any conference in the FCS — and South Dakota State finished as the FCS runner-up.

They are, in order:

2. North Dakota State

Last season vs. YSU: North Dakota State won, 25-7.

About the Bison: North Dakota State leads the MVFC in the preseason rankings by Athlon, checking in at No. 2 behind the Colonial Athletic Association’s James Madison.

In the spring, the Bison had a bit of a down season by their standards, finishing 7-3, 5-2 in conference play and exiting in the FCS quarterfinals after having won eight of the previous nine national championships.

NDSU steadily outpaced Youngstown State for a 25-7 win in the Fargodome in February. It was YSU’s season opener.

The Bison return plenty of firepower from that squad, and they added Virginia Tech transfer Quincy Patterson at the quarterback slot. Patterson was a 4-star prospect out of high school.

The Penguins host NDSU for their home finale Nov. 13.

4. South Dakota State

Last season vs. YSU: South Dakota State won, 19-17.

About the Jackrabbits: South Dakota State went 8-2 overall and 5-1 in conference play a season ago, earned a share of the MVFC title, and was the runner-up to Sam Houston State in the FCS playoffs.

Youngstown State gave SDSU quite the battle in Brookings, S.D., on March 13. After trailing 16-7 entering the fourth quarter, the Penguins rallied for a 17-16 lead. However, Cole Frahm thwarted YSU’s upset bid by converting a field goal with 31 seconds to play and lifted the Jackrabbits to victory.

Tailbacks Isaiah Davis (96 carries, 823 yards, 10 TDs) and Pierre Strong Jr. (131 carries, 731 yards, 3 TDs) are both back, the latter of which ran for 124 yards against the Penguins last season.

SDSU does have a question mark at quarterback, as last year’s MVFC Offensive Player of the Year, Mark Gronowski, is expected to miss the entire upcoming season with a torn ACL he suffered during the FCS championship game.

YSU hosts South Dakota State on Halloween weekend, Oct. 30.

7. North Dakota

Last season vs. YSU: Did not play.

About the Fighting Hawks: North Dakota and Youngstown State didn’t meet in the spring campaign. Entering the already-once-postponed contest, YSU had played seven games in eight weeks, and with the cancellation, the Penguins’ season was over.

North Dakota, meanwhile, captured a share of the MVFC crown with SDSU and Missouri State and was the only conference foe to hand the Jackrabbits a loss.

The Fighting Hawks (5-2, 4-1) were the league’s top scoring offense, averaging 29.9 points per game and running back Otis Weah was the league’s top rusher at 104.3 yards per game. He also scored nine touchdowns and is back again this year.

Youngstown State visits UND on Nov. 6.

9. Southern Illinois

Last Season vs. YSU: Southern Illinois won, 30-22.

About the Salukis: In their spring meeting, Youngstown State got off to a quick start and took a 19-13 lead into halftime, but was outscored 17-3 the rest of the way.

The Salukis (6-4, 3-3) featured the league’s top total offense with an average 425.1 yards per game, which was built on the league’s most efficient passing offense — a rating of 145.3.

Back for SIU are quarterback Stone Labanowitz (110-for-152, 8 TDs, 4 INTs) and top receivers Avante Cox (66 rec., 838 yards, 5 TDs) and Landon Lenoir (45 rec., 590 yards, 4 TDs), among others. Cox was the league’s top receiver, recording 83.8 receiving yards per game.

YSU closes out its regular season at Southern Illinois on Nov. 20.

14. Northern Iowa

Last season vs. YSU: Northern Iowa won, 21-0.

About the Panthers: The two teams met in YSU’s home opener in February, and the Penguins were still in search of an offensive identity at that point. UNI (3-4, 3-4) led just 6-0 entering the fourth quarter before eventually putting the game away.

The Panthers featured the MVFC’s second-best scoring defense last season (15.3 points per game) and No. 2 total defense (286 yards per game).

The defense figures to be UNI’s top unit again this year. MVFC Defensive Player of the Year Jared Brinkman is back along the Panthers’ front. He racked up nine tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in the shortened campaign and forced a pair of fumbles.

Youngstown State travels to UNI on Oct. 2.

25. Missouri State

Last season vs. YSU: Missouri State won, 21-10.

About the Bears: Missouri State took a commanding 21-3 lead into the fourth quarter against YSU last season and made it stand.

MSU (5-5, 5-1) captured a share of the MVFC crown in the inaugural season for head coach Bobby Petrino, who previously has coached at the Power 5 level at Louisville and Arkansas. He was named MVFC Coach of the Year.

The Bears also made the playoffs for the first time since 1990. That campaign came despite finishing eighth in the MVFC in both scoring offense and scoring defense.

Defensive back Montrae Braswell was an All-MVFC First Team selection, while six Bears made the Second Team.

Braswell intercepted three passes, including a pick-6, which was good for third in the league. He also forced a pair of fumbles and had the fifth-most pass defenses in the league.

Youngstown State hosts the Bears on Oct. 9 for homecoming.

In addition to these, the Penguins travel to East Lansing, Mich., to face the Michigan State Spartans on Sept. 11. YSU begins its season against Incarnate Word on Thursday, Sept. 2, at Stambaugh Stadium.

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