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Penguins seeking more from this year’s opener

YOUNGSTOWN — There will only be one college football game in the country on television at 3 p.m. Saturday, and Youngstown State is determined to make the most of its “Week Zero” matchup against Samford in the FCS Kickoff Classic.

Pretty much anything would be better than what happened in last year’s opener.

The Penguins were shocked by woeful Butler, 23-21, on a last-second field goal. The Bulldogs scored 16 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to hand YSU what was arguably the worst defeat in school history.

The pain of that loss continues to resonate within the team.

“It still definitely stings a lot,” said defensive end Justus Reed, who is returning from an Achilles tendon injury that kept him out all of last year. “I didn’t even play in that game, and I was livid after the game. We definitely want to come out and put on a better show and not have that same result again.”

The Butler loss set the tone for YSU’s worst season in nearly a decade, as the Penguins finished 4-7 and eighth out of 10 teams in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

A team with several new starters on both sides of the ball hopes to start 2019 off right. It won’t come easy against a Samford team that has earned eight straight winning seasons and three playoff appearances in the past six years.

“The first game is always one of the most important games,” said senior safety Kyle Hegedus, who’s returning after suffering season-ending injuries each of the last two years. “It’s sets the tone for the season. Also, being on national television, we want to make a statement. We want to show the nation what we’ve become since last year, going 4-7 and not doing what we wanted to do. So this is a huge statement for us, a huge statement for proving to ourselves and other people who we really are and who we can become going forward.”

One of the biggest question marks for the Penguins is at quarterback, and it will likely remain a mystery until Saturday.

YSU coach Bo Pelini has not named a starter after senior Nathan Mays and sophomore Joe Craycraft battled throughout preseason camp.

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Mays brings a veteran presence after starting five games as a sophomore and sharing time at QB last year. A dual-threat with strong leadership skills, Mays nearly pulled off an upset of top-ranked North Dakota State his sophomore year, but injuries have slowed his progress.

Craycraft (6-3, 215) hasn’t played any significant minutes in a collegiate game, but he has been steady throughout camp. He possesses a stronger arm than Mays and also has decent mobility.

“Both quarterbacks are playing well,” Pelini said. “We’ll have a better idea here in a couple days of exactly how we’re going to proceed for Saturday. … They have an idea of how it’s going to go. I’m not going to sit there and lock that in yet until we know for sure, until we have all the information in front of us and make the decision we feel gives us the best chance to execute.”

The Penguins will be breaking in six new starters on offense and seven on defense.

They’ll be facing a Samford team that lost three All-Americans, including Walter Payton Award winner Devlin Hodges, wide receiver Kelvin McKnight and defensive lineman Ahmad Gooden.

The Bulldogs haven’t named a starting QB either, with juniors Liam Welch and Chris Oladokun competing for the spot. Welch is the only one with any experience, completing 4-for-6 passes for 24 yards and one TD last season.

With this being the first game for both teams, Pelini said the Penguins’ young defense better be ready for the pass-happy, up-tempo Samford attack regardless of who starts.

“They’re not going to do a completely different offense, but I’m sure they’ll tailor it to what that quarterback’s strengths are,” he said. “We’ll have to be ready to adjust. I’m not exactly sure about all their personnel, what they’re going to feature and what they’re not going to feature. (Samford coach Chris Hatcher) has had a lot of success offensively, so he’s not going to recreate the wheel.”

One advantage for Samford is the school is located in Birmingham, Alabama, just an hour and a half away from the “neutral site” of the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama.

The Penguins aren’t overly concerned. They’re focused on themselves and creating a new identity for what they believe will be a bounce-back season.

“The whole summer has been gearing down toward this one game,” Mays said. “We’ve been counting down the number of days to this and the national championship, but this one’s obviously the first one to start a long road for us — possibly one of the longest seasons in college football.”

A good start would go a long way in making that thought more realistic.

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