Penguins refocus on ISU

YOUNGSTOWN — Hearing that his players are focused on winning their final four games in hopes of finding a way into the FCS playoffs didn’t exactly excite Youngstown State coach Bo Pelini at his weekly Tuesday press conference.

Winning one game has been hard enough for the Penguins as of late.

“If they’re thinking about that, that’s a problem” said Pelini, who came to the podium unaware that a couple of players had just voiced their intentions of winning out to give the Penguins a chance at reaching the playoffs. “I’ve got to make sure that gets changed because you can’t win four (on Saturday). You’ve got to win one. Then you win the next one. That’s the way it goes. When you start thinking about other things, that’s how you have performances like we had last Saturday.”

The Penguins can’t afford another one, especially with 16th-ranked Illinois State coming to Stambaugh Stadium on Saturday.

YSU (3-4, 1-3 Missouri Valley Football Conference) is losers of three straight and coming off a dreadful 19-14 loss to Northern Iowa in which the Penguins allowed 10 sacks, ran the ball for 46 yards and struggled to stop the run on defense.

The performance was hard to swallow for Pelini and his players, especially considering their national championship aspirations.

“I hope they’re disappointed, disgusted — I could just go on with the adjectives,” said Pelini when asked about the mood of the team. “I know I am. … I don’t know if I’ve ever been as disappointed as I was after Saturday’s game.”

The 21st-ranked Penguins need to turn the page quickly because the upstart Redbirds (5-2, 3-1) are coming off their biggest victory of the season, a 37-21 win over previously undefeated South Dakota.

There are plenty of holes to fill, but it starts up front, where YSU has allowed 22 sacks in the past three games and 26 for the season, by far the most in the MVFC. A once-dominant offensive line that was the driving force behind YSU’s strong start suddenly looks porous and lacking confidence.

“I thought we’d been playing pretty well up front,” Pelini said. “Obviously Saturday was our worst (game). They did some things to create some one-on-one matchups that we didn’t win. Our technique stunk. We had too many missed assignments, and at times, we didn’t help them.”

Maybe more alarming was YSU’s anemic rushing attack, which came in ranked ninth in the FCS. That falls directly on the line and the running backs, and neither had a direct answer as to why the Penguins struggled so badly.

“We weren’t changing the line of scrimmage,” Pelini said, “and when that happens, you’re going to struggle to run the football.”

The defense hasn’t exactly been itself either, yielding more than 150 yards rushing per game and struggling to get stops on third down.

All of the problems could result in YSU missing out on the playoffs (the players and Pelini said they needed to win out even before the loss to UNI) one year after making a run to the FCS Championship game. Still, with four games left and the playoff picture still to be determined, the Penguins insist they’re staying positive and rallying around one another rather than heading in opposite directions.

“You would think people would be down and things like that, but that’s not this group,” YSU junior running back Tevin McCaster said. “It’s the same (mindset) as Week 1 — fired up and ready to go.

“No one’s happy about what’s been going on,” he later added, “and we’re ready to step up and make a change.”