Uneven Penguin season at end

YOUNGSTOWN — There was a decent amount of hype when Montgomery VanGorder decided to transfer from the University of Notre Dame to Youngstown State last January.

The graduate student’s lone season with the Penguins didn’t bring the same excitement.

VanGorder played well at times, including a record-breaking day in Week 4 against Western Illinois, but like so many other players, his inconsistencies overshadowed his strengths.

“It’s kind of like our season has been — it’s been a little up and down,” said VanGorder, a senior, of his only year as a college starter after being a backup with the Fighting Irish. “Obviously I was hoping we’d get a few more wins. We were pretty optimistic coming into the season. But you play the season, (and) that’s how it went. There’s ups and downs, but I feel really fortunate being able to spend a year here, and hopefully we can finish it the right way with these guys in the locker room.”

There’s no guarantee he’ll lead the upstart Penguins (4-6, 3-4 Missouri Valley Football Conference) into their season finale on the road at reeling Illinois State (5-5, 2-5).

VanGorder started last week’s impressive win over Northern Iowa after Nathan Mays was banged up following a start the week before against top-ranked North Dakota State. While VanGorder won a quarterback competition in fall camp (after Mays was injured), the inconsistencies on offense gave Mays a chance. Mays, a junior, brought some life to the offense before his injury, and YSU coach Bo Pelini was noncommittal — and mostly mum — on VanGorder starting against the Redbirds.

“We’ll see how the week goes,” he said of which QB will start. “They’ll both be available to play.”

Pelini’s political approach is understandable as it keeps Illinois State, losers of four straight after being ranked No. 8 in the country in early October, guessing on who to prepare for.

VanGorder is mobile, but he’s more of a prototypical dropback passer. Mays, conversely, has a decent arm, but there are significantly more designed runs for the QB when he plays. That’s led to quite a few injuries for the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Mays, who dressed last week for the UNI game but never saw the field.

While there have been some ups and downs, the varied styles have also provided Pelini with some different options offensively.

“It gives you some flexibility,” Pelini said. “The nice thing about it is we don’t really change our offense much regardless of who’s in there at quarterback. Maybe we lean toward a couple things that are a little bit different, but not much.”

VanGorder has completed 144-of-264 (54.5 percent) passes for 1,911 yards (191.1 yards per game), 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He has run for 221 yards on 76 carries. He went off against WIU, setting school records in completions (33), attempts (57) and yards (418), but YSU lost, 45-38.

Mays, who has just one start, is 16-of-28 passing (57.1 percent) for 205 yards and one TD. He has 162 rushing yards on 38 carries.

Both have brought something more than statistics the last two weeks. It’s an ingredient that has been missing for much of the year and could be the main reason the Penguins are out of the playoffs for the 16th time in the last 18 seasons: energy.

“The last few weeks have been really fun,” VanGorder said. “That’s kind of what we missed in the beginning of the season is the emotion, the fun we’ve been having the last few weeks. Even against North Dakota State, we didn’t get the outcome we liked, but we showed the emotion, the fire that you have to play this sport with. Last week, we put our most complete performance together to date, and hopefully we can build off that and send the seniors out on a high note and build on the program moving forward.”

The Penguins are playing their best football as of late, with a close, 17-7, loss to the Bison on Nov. 3 followed by the biggest blowout of UNI since 1979, a 31-10 victory last week.

The Redbirds once looked like one of the premier teams in the MVFC, but consecutive losses to NDSU, South Dakota State, Northern Iowa and Indiana State have essentially removed them from playoff contention.

Pride will be the only thing on the line at 1 p.m. Saturday.

“Let’s face it, when you find yourself in the situation we’re in, it becomes difficult,” Pelini said of YSU. “You know you’re out of the playoffs, but I like the way our guys have responded.”