Saturday’s loss ‘better’ than previous week

The outcome was still a loss, but it was much less shocking.

The Youngstown State Penguins were embarrassed by what a recent Sports Illustrated article called “one of the biggest upsets of the century” last week. Really, that’s only about 18 years, but still, the story wasn’t a good look for the Penguins, who lost, 23-21, to Butler at home in Week 1.

While Week 2 brought a whole different beast and another ugly outcome, the Penguins played better … though, they couldn’t have played much worse.

They expectedly lost by a large margin to No. 14 West Virginia (52-17), but the Penguins looked more like a team that could compete for a playoff spot than one that couldn’t hold off a non-scholarship team that was a 35 1/2-point underdog.

The Penguins were within striking distance late in the second quarter on Saturday, but the big-play ability of the Mountaineers eventually was too much to withstand. WVU quarterback Will Grier, a Heisman Trophy candidate, and Gary Jennings hooked up for three touchdown passes as the Mountaineers pulled away.

Still, there were bright spots for YSU, which ran the ball well at times and also got a huge day from emerging wide receiver Zach Farrar, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound sophomore who caught six passes for 135 yards. Running back Tevin McCaster ran for 72 yards on 14 carries and a touchdown, and fellow tailback Christian Turner added 48 yards on 10 carries.

The numbers may not be eye-popping, but they’re not bad against one of the favorites in the Big 12. Maybe more important was that the Penguins didn’t give in after a 14-0 hole. They put together an impressive touchdown drive and had the ball with a chance to tie the game. While the drive stalled and WVU took over, there was a level of competitiveness that was needed.

“Our margin for error was not big going into this football game,” YSU coach Bo Peilni said. “I knew that, and probably everybody in the country knew that. Our kids fought. They fought to the end, they played their butts off and I told them it’s time to move forward and keep getting better.”

Indeed, they do.

It starts with another team the Penguins SHOULD beat in Valparaiso. The Crusaders, who YSU hosts on Saturday, are part of the same Pioneer League as Butler, and again, they’re a non-scholarship school that’s a fledgling FCS program. Nothing against the Crusaders, but much like Butler, it’s a basketball school.

There’s no chance the Penguins will overlook VU ahead of a bye week, so if they struggle or (gulp) lose, then they’re just not very talented. I don’t see that as the case. There are some holes, specifically in the secondary, that need fixed, but that is an inexperienced group that should improve with more playing time.

There also is promise. The offensive line looked good for a second straight week. They opened holes against a formidable defense and gave first-year quarterback Montgomery VanGorder time in the pocket. VanGorder was solid again, and he should improve the more he plays. Remember, despite being a senior graduate transfer, these were his first two collegiate starts.

Overall, this was a decent performance coming off an epic loss. A young team seeking an identity and leadership didn’t quiver in fear in a hostile environment against a team that was much more talented. They took some blows and delivered a few of their own. Now comes the real test: sustaining a high level of play.

The Penguins need to start showing they’re capable of doing more than just competing. It starts with the defense, which must be the backbone of this team. It has been for years, and the defense must improve in a hurry. The offense just needs consistency. Great plays are often followed by ugly ones. To win in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, consistency and efficiency are pivotal for an offense.

Overall, the Penguins made a lot of money by going to West Virginia (around $550,000), and they may have proven some things to themselves along the way.