Usually reliable line play an issue

There is a litany of reasons the Youngstown State football team will likely be on the outside looking in when the FCS postseason field is announced next month, and they’re not the ones fans are used to hearing.

For years, inexplicable losses that could have vaulted YSU into the playoffs happened because of gaping defensive holes and puzzling collapses to underwhelming teams. This year is different, but the result could be equally disappointing.

The Penguins, coming off a riveting playoff run to the FCS Championship game last year, are in a downward spiral after a devastating 19-14 road loss to Northern Iowa on Saturday, their third straight defeat. The first two losses were somewhat acceptable considering the competition (No. 2 North Dakota State and No. 3 South Dakota), but this one was a must-win for ninth-ranked YSU, so it stings a bit more and could be the nail in the coffin when it comes to a second-straight postseason appearance.

The Penguins, now 3-4 and 1-3 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, are suffering from a rash of injuries — in a couple different areas — and poor play on the offensive and defensive lines. Two of YSU’s most consistent position groups over the last five to 10 years have been up front, especially since coach Bo Pelini arrived two-and-a-half years ago. Maybe Saturday’s loss was just an aberration, with two normally reliable groups having bad days, but their play has been steadily declining.

The offensive line allowed an embarrassing 10 sacks against UNI and has now given up 22 in the last three games. Sacks are rarely only the fault of the line (a quarterback can hold the ball too long, wide receivers can run wrong routes or fail to get open, running backs can mess up protections, etc.), but 22 in three weeks is a startling number.

Furthermore, it was obvious, at times, that linemen were simply getting beat — badly in some instances — on Saturday. Granted, there was an injury or two, but o-line depth hasn’t been an issue at YSU for some time. If one guy goes down, another steps in and plays to a winning standard. Not this time.

To add to their issues, the almost-always reliable run game — another longtime staple for the Penguins — was slowed to a putrid 47 yards on 36 carries. That may be even more alarming than the sacks because the rushing attack has long been the engine that powers the Youngstown State offense.

On the other side of the ball, the defensive line was a major question mark entering the season after the losses of NFL draft picks Derek Rivers and Avery Moss. There really hadn’t been much cause for concern until recently. The biggest weakness on the d-line appeared to be a pass rush, and that deficiency grew when defensive end Justus Reed (the team leader in sacks with four) suffered a shoulder injury. YSU didn’t register a sack against UNI and had just one the week before against North Dakota State. They have 15 through seven games (sixth in the MVFC) after leading the nation in that category one year ago.

Against the Panthers over the weekend, another, more prominent problem surfaced: an inability to stop the run. The first goal of almost any defense is to stuff a team’s running game. It’s imperative to a unit’s success and is the backbone of most defenses, including that of Pelini.

Again, this past performance could simply be a one-week bump in the road, but the struggles stopping the run are becoming more and more of a concern. YSU allowed 188 yards rushing to North Dakota State and then gave up 181 to UNI. The Penguins are in the middle of the pack in the MVFC when it comes to run defense (allowing 154 yards per game), and they’re going in the wrong direction.

These two areas of concern are affected by more than just poor line play. The level of competition, situations during games and the play of those around them are just a few of the circumstances, but the bottom line is YSU must improve in those phases of the game to right the ship. There is undeniable talent still on this Penguin team, and if they can get going down the stretch like they did a year ago, anything is possible, but as any coach will tell you, it all starts up front.