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Penguins end season with a bang

In like a lion and out with a roar.

It was a frustrating 2021 football season at Youngstown State, no doubt, but also one bookended by major victories.

All told, YSU finished 3-7, but each of the three victories came over teams that qualified for the FCS postseason.

The Penguins opened their season with a thrilling 44-41 win over Incarnate Word (How long ago does that feel?) and finished it with a dominant 35-18 upset of Southern Illinois. YSU also upset Missouri State in October, 41-33.

Between those victories were seven losses. Some were pretty expected, like the blowouts against South Dakota State and North Dakota State. Others were excruciating, like the 28-point meltdown to Western Illinois and a blown fourth quarter at North Dakota.

Here are some final thoughts now that the season has concluded:

Margins were razor thin

Let’s revisit a few of those aforementioned games.

By my count, YSU is a combined eight points from sitting at 5-5 instead of 3-7 — reversing the 38-35 loss to Western and 24-21 loss at UND — but also was just four points (and a borderline miracle play from Jaleel McLaughlin) from sitting at 2-8 had it lost to UIW.

Then, too, YSU lost 28-17 at Indiana State, but that game could have gone much, much differently had Demeatric Crenshaw not gotten injured on YSU’s second drive of the game.

In hindsight, YSU was a few plays — and one injury — away from being above .500 this year.

Still, the “what ifs” are just that — what ifs. In future seasons, the Penguins will need to have grown and matured enough to close games out once and for all so that those “what ifs” are simply reality.

Demeatric Crenshaw impressed

Entering the season with some questions at quarterback, the Penguins have found their guy in Crenshaw.

He isn’t a finished product by any means, but the foundation clearly is there for Crenshaw to be a staple of this offense over the next few seasons.

In his freshman campaign, Crenshaw’s biggest contributions were on the ground. He finished 63rd in the FCS with 66.6 rushing yards per game. That stat may not pop until you factor in that the rankings include all of the running backs nationwide.

In all, he ran for 599 yards and seven touchdowns on 132 attempts.

His passing game, meanwhile, will need to develop, but he made progress as the year went on.

Crenshaw completed 97-of-156 passes for 791 yards and six touchdowns. He was picked off five times.

A vast majority of his passes were on checkdowns on shorter routes, which will need to change if YSU is to open its offense up more next season. To be fair, however, he didn’t always have much time to work. Despite its run-heavy scheme, YSU was tied for 79th in sacks allowed per game with 23 allowed on 319 attempts.

That schedule was brutal

YSU played 10 games, nine of which were against FCS opponents.

Of the nine FCS teams the Penguins tangoed with, six of them made the postseason: UIW, Northern Iowa, Missouri State, South Dakota State, North Dakota State and Southern Illinois.

The FBS game was against Michigan State, an upstart program that currently sits at No. 12 in the AP Top 25.

In terms of win percentage, YSU’s strength of schedule finished at No. 2 in the FCS behind Dixie State. The Penguins’ opponents won 61.6 percent of their contests.

The defense needs to rebound next year

There’s no other way to put it: the YSU defense struggled this year.

Part of that, of course, is the high-caliber offenses it was tasked with facing. But consider that YSU had the fourth-worst defense in terms of total yardage this year, and many of the opponents the Penguins faced are back on next year’s schedule.

The ‘Guins’ gave up 475.4 yards per game — a staggering number.

YSU also ranked 105th in sacks (1.4 per game), 101st in passing yards allowed (252.3 per game) and 118th in rushing yards per game (223.1).

When things were going well for the defense, it typically was because of turnovers keeping the Penguins in the mix and keeping opponents from finding a rhythm. That trend will have to continue into next season, but YSU will need to tighten down, as well.

Next season is big for this program

Every season matters, of course, but count me among those who won’t judge too harshly for how the spring and fall seasons of 2021 went for any program.

As YSU head coach Doug Phillips has rightly pointed out, the spring season this year was such an anomaly, it’s hard to gauge much of anything from it. Couple that with having to turn around and play a fall campaign just months later, and it’s hard to imagine a program in YSU’s situation could have made a ton of overnight progress.

Phillips has often said that the Penguins are in need of a full offseason to grow and develop together, particularly in the weight room. Having been hired in February 2020, he’s finally getting that opportunity just a few months ahead of the two-year anniversary of his hiring.

Couple that with an easier nonconference slate — the Penguins get Duquesne and Dayton, according to fbschedules.com — and winnable MVFC games, and you’d certainly like to see some improvement in the win-loss department so that the momentum continues.

That begins with having a successful offseason now.

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