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Penguins deal with adversity in 2 victories

YOUNGSTOWN — The Youngstown State football team is 2-0 and leads the FCS in rushing yardage and rushing touchdowns as a team with FCS Championship aspirations gains steam for conference play.

The start has been especially important after an ugly 4-7 season in 2018. While expectations are rising and fans are starting to believe again, the Penguins haven’t exactly been dominant. There have been ugly stretches on both sides of the ball.

It’s what has happened after those negative moments that may be the biggest positive for YSU.

A team that struggled with adversity last year is learning how to respond when trouble surfaces. YSU trailed in both of its first two games, and each time the Penguins showed the ability to answer the call.

“The guys this year are really settling into their roles and knowing that it’s not bigger than me, I’m just one guy that’s got to take care of what I can do,” said senior quarterback Nathan Mays, one of the unquestioned leaders of the team. “So, whenever they’re getting up for a 6 a.m. lift or going to meetings, they’re paying attention, they’re doing what they can. Everyone’s just buying in really well right now, and when you don’t have guys bought in, the adversity kind of pushes you back too far, and sometimes it’s too much to overcome. Right now, it’s not even close to that.”

It’s a pleasant change from last year.

Take the home opener in 2018, when an undermanned and overmatched Butler team kept fighting back and making plays against the heavily favored Penguins. YSU eventually gave in to the unrelenting Bulldogs and suffered a monumental upset.

There were similar moments last Saturday when Howard University, a young program that boasts some star players, showed it could hang with the bigger, stronger Penguins. The Bison took a 14-6 lead and disturbing thoughts of last year’s mortifying loss starting dancing in fans’ heads, but they were short-lived.

YSU made numerous big plays to retake the momentum and establish itself as the dominant team. The same scenario played out two weeks prior against Samford, when the Bulldogs took a 7-0 lead, only to watch the Penguins rattle off 31 straight points.

It’s about leadership, YSU coach Bo Pelini said.

“We have continuity this year,” he said. “Last year, with all the the injuries and musical chairs, so to speak, were weren’t sure where we were going to get the leadership from. This year, it’s a different dynamic, a little bit of a different culture. There’s more continuity, and it’s showing.”

Maybe the most obvious sign of that continuity is up front on the offensive line.

A group that is ushering in several new faces, including Hubbard High School graduate Matt Jones, a senior center who transferred from West Virginia, has been dominant. They’ve allowed just one sack and paved the way for an FCS-best 731 rushing yards and nine TDs in the first two games.

A position group that demands cohesion and communication is leading by example and powering the offense.

“They communicate well, and they practice well,” Pelini said. “To me, it always starts with what happens during the week. You earn the right to play well on Saturday. Right now they’re practicing well. They’re getting the mistakes corrected that need to be corrected, and I’m seeing progress. Believe me, we have to continue to make progress because we’re not perfect by any means, but they’re playing at a pretty high level.”

The defense is too … at times.

The seven turnovers in two games is a huge turnaround from last year when YSU created just nine turnovers for the entire season. A fumble recovery against Howard early in the third quarter was exactly the play the Penguins needed to recapture the momentum.

There have been some issues as well. YSU has allowed 573 passing yards (286.5 yards per game) and five TDs in two games. Pelini pointed to improper fundamentals and poor technique as reasons for the problems. They’re mistakes that can be corrected, he said.

He hopes that starts Saturday against Duquesne, a returning FCS playoff team that opened its season with a 44-3 victory over Division II Walsh University.

As long as the Penguins continue to make progress throughout the week, Pelini likes their chances.

“Our team understands that, A. We have a chance to be a really good football team, and B. We have a lot of work to do to become a really good football team,” he said. “If they continue to bring the type of energy and effort to the practice field that we have, then that gives us a chance, and that’s been the case so far.”

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