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Penguins expecting athletic test in MSU

Correspondent photo / David Dermer Youngstown State’s Demeatric Crenshaw runs the ball before being tripped up by Northern Iowa’s Riley Van Wyhe during the first half of the game, Saturday afternoon at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

YOUNGSTOWN — Speed and athleticism have long been cornerstones of teams coached by Bobby Petrino, and this year’s Missouri State team is just the latest example.

The Bears (3-1, 2-0 Missouri Valley Football Conference) visit Youngstown State on Saturday and are off to their best start in MVFC play since 1997, and currently sit at No. 15 in the Stats Perform FCS Top 25.

A large chunk of that can be attributed to the work Petrino and Co. did in the transfer portal. That was in an effort to get more explosive plays, Petrino said back in July at MVFC Media Day.

“We have to get more chunk plays or big plays, whether it’s by breaking tackles and running or throwing it downfield or run after a catch. We have to create more big plays; it’s too hard to drive the ball continuously to score points all the time,” he said.

Quarterback Jason Shelley is this year’s starter under center after spending time at Utah and Utah State. The dual-threat signal caller is 79-for-136 and has racked up 1,066 yards and six touchdowns already.

In addition, he’s run a team-high 55 times for 160 yards and three touchdowns.

“He’s a great player,” YSU (1-3, 0-2) defensive end James Jackson said Tuesday. “He’s probably the best quarterback we’ve seen so far. He can pass the ball, he can run, he can scramble. He presents a lot of challenges, so we have to be locked in.”

He’s not the only transfer having an immediate impact for MSU, either.

The Bears added Xavier Lane, Tyrone Scott and Naveon Mitchell to their arsenal this season, with impressive results.

Scott leads the team with 250 yards and two touchdowns on 16 receptions, while Lane has 20 grabs for 248 yards and a score. They average 15.63 and 12.40 yards per reception, respectively.

As a team, the Bears are 25th in the FCS in terms of yards per completion with an average of 13.31. MSU also sits at 25th in scoring offense (34.2 points per game) and 31st in total yardage.

It’s a tough assignment for a Youngstown State defense that’s faced its share of struggles this year, but Jackson says he feels the Penguins are up to the task after falling at Northern Iowa 34-7 last week.

“The main takeaway (from UNI) is everybody needs to trust each other,” he said. “We have the talent; we have the trust in our scheme. We just all have to trust one another that everybody will be there and do their job.”

MSU’s defense plays with much of the same speed and athleticism, according to YSU tight end Josh Burgett. That’s without so many transfers, though.

The Bears enter with the FCS’ No. 13 rushing defense, allowing just 86.2 yards per game.

“A lot of stunts, a lot of blitzes,” Burgett said. “With their athleticism, it’s hitting quick and it’s hitting fast, so a lot of teams fail to pick it up and adjust to it.”

He added, “I think last year when we played them, we were on it, and we were picking up their blitzes. As soon as we start picking up on that and show them we’re able to block that, they’ll back out of it, and we’ll run our stuff.”

If there is a weakness to this MSU team, it’s the pass defense, which is giving up 299 yards per game and is ranked at No. 113 out of 123 FCS programs. It marks an opportunity for YSU to amp up its so-far sluggish offense, which is 60th in scoring (25 points per game) and 68th in total yardage (347.8 yards per game).

If the Penguins are to capitalize on that, though, they’ll need to start connecting on some explosive plays to open up the offense. Nearly all of YSU’s completed passes this season have been on short-to-intermediate routes, and as a result, the Penguins are second-to-last in the FCS in terms of yards per completion with an average of 8.3.

Head coach Doug Phillips says execution is the main thing YSU needs to nail down, and it’s something the team has worked on at practice.

“A lot of it goes into timing, goes into field work, because … if you’re not doing it in practice, you’re not going to do it in games,” he said.

Phillips added, “Are we constantly making an emphasis of it? Yes, because not only will those shots open up your short-ranged and intermediate routes, but it’ll open up your run game.”

That’s crucial for a YSU team that often lives and dies by its ground game. The Penguins are 15th in the FCS in rushing with 217 yards per game, but the last six quarters have been tough in that regard. In those six quarters, YSU has been kept to just 114 yards on the ground.

To get the offense going, Burgett says the Penguins need to remain disciplined.

“We’re still in our first year as a program with this coaching staff, and people have to realize that,” he said. “We just have to remain bought in, stick with our discipline, stick with our rules. I think moving forward as long as we stick with that, we’ll be fine.”

A full position-by-position breakdown will be available Thursday.

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