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Scouting Report: Week 6

The biggest test of the season didn’t go as planned for the Youngstown State football team.

An even bigger one awaits YSU in the second week of conference play.

The 17th-ranked Penguins need to rebound quickly from their first loss of the season. YSU (4-1, 0-1 Missouri Valley Football Conference) welcomes No. 3 South Dakota State (4-1, 1-0) to Stambaugh Stadium in one of the biggest games in the country at the FCS level.

The Jackrabbits are a perennial powerhouse in the FCS, making the playoffs seven straight years. Their defense is ranked in the top five in the NCAA in points allowed (11.6) and top 10 in total yards allowed. SDSU is coming off a battle with unranked Southern Illinois, a game it trailed at halftime before scoring 19 straight points.

YSU had a battle of its own, with a late rally against the Panthers falling short. A signature win at home against one of the nation’s best teams would do wonders for YSU’s playoff resume and the confidence of a young, unproven team. It won’t come easy.

QUARTERBACKS

YSU — It’s unclear whether starter Nathan Mays will be healthy enough to play. The senior suffered an undisclosed leg injury and was on crutches following the game. He has been the heart and soul of the offense, making big plays with his arm and his legs in leading YSU to a 4-1 start. His backup is Joe Craycraft, who lost a close QB competition with Mays in camp. While athletic, he’s not the same threat at Mays on scrambles, but he has a strong arm. Facing one of the nation’s best defenses is a tall task for any QB, let alone an inexperienced one.

SDSU — J’Bore Gibbs is the second straight talented redshirt freshman YSU will face in the past two weeks. Gibbs possesses ideal size (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) and has good mobility. He’s been rather efficient, completing 58.5 percent of his passes with six TDs and three interceptions. The Jackrabbits haven’t been reliant on him as the league’s leading rusher. It’ll be interesting to see how he responds on the road under pressure if YSU can slow down SDSU’s run game.

EDGE — Even

RUNNING BACKS

YSU — YSU’s run game was held in check for the first time this year, finishing with just 55 yards against UNI after averaging nearly 300 in four prior games. Starter Christian Turner, who was off to a slow start, had his best game as a receiver, with 31 yards on five receptions. Joe Alessi still appears to be the lead back. He has a team-high 375 yards on 55 carries. He’s one of three backs with more than 200 yards and at least three TDs as the Penguins prefer a running back-by-committee approach.

SDSU — Sophomore Pierre Strong is the engine that powers the Jackrabbits’ offense. He was the conference freshman of the year last season, and Strong (5-11, 200-pound) now leads a three-headed attack for SDSU. He leads the MVFC with 551 yards and is averaging 8.3 yards per carry. He is a threat out of the backfield with eight receptions for 123 yards (15.4 yards per catch). He’ll be the focus of the YSU defense.

EDGE — SDSU

RECEIVERS

YSU — With the run game shut down against UNI, the receivers stepped up and played fairly well. Ryan Emans made several key grabs on third down. Unfortunately, he had a big drop late in the game as well. Those happen. Jermiah Braswell caught his team-high third TD on a 75-yard pass and lead YSU in most receiving categories.

SDSU — Cade Johnson will be the No. 2 threat for the Penguins. The uber-talented junior is a returning All-American who has 21 receptions, 373 yards and four TDs to lead SDSU. Johnson (5-10, 180) is speedy with good hands and can score from anywhere on the field. The Jackrabbits don’t exactly spread the ball around. Adam Anderson is second on SDSU with 12 catches for just 82 yards.

EDGE — SDSU

OFFENSIVE LINE

YSU — The men up front had their first dud of the year, allowing six sacks and struggling to create room in the run game. Granted, they faced one of the more talented d-lines in the country, but that’s going to happen again this week. They need to be better if YSU is going to pull off an upset.

SDSU — The Penguins face another monstrous offensive line. South Dakota State’s front averages 6-5 1/2 and 315 pounds. It’s led by left tackle Evan Greeneway. He’s one of three returning starters. The line has paved the way for one of the league’s best run game. It has allowed nine sacks in five games, so it’ll be interesting to see how they handle the explosive defensive front of YSU.

EDGE — Even

DEFENSIVE LINE

YSU — The line had an average day, which is rare considering its talent. Antoine Cook had a career game with seven tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss, but YSU struggled against a bigger, stronger offensive line. They’ll need to be gap sound against SDSU, which is one of the better running teams in the nation. If they can help slow the run and then rush the passer, they can limit a fine-tuned Jackrabbit offense.

SDSU — Ryan Earith (6-4, 260) leads a big, veteran line. Earith is a four-year starter tied with two other players for the team high in sacks at two. Xavier Ward (6-2, 290) is another returning starter, while Reece Winkelman (6-4, 250) and Spencer Hildahl (6-3, 290) are experienced as well. It’s a powerful group that will be a formidable matchup for the YSU line.

EDGE — YSU

LINEBACKERS

YSU — Ray Anderson and Cash Mitchell each had their moments against UNI and will play a huge role this week against the run-heavy Jackrabbits. Mitchell is second on YSU with six TFLs, while Anderson is fourth with 21 tackles. All the linebackers will have their hands full trying to stop Strong.

SDSU — Christian Rozeboom is one of the better linebackers in the conference. The All-American is good as a pass rusher, against the run and in coverage. He’s second on the team with 34 tackles and also has a team-best two interceptions. He’s flanked by team captain Logan Backhaus, who leads SDSU with 39 stops and five pass break-ups. Seven Wilson is tied with Rozeboom with 34 tackles. It equates to one of the better corps in the MVFC.

EDGE — SDSU

SECONDARY

YSU — Inconsistencies continued to plague the secondary, which allowed 235 passing yards and struggled on third-and-long situations. They’ve had great moments followed by ugly ones all season. They should be paying special attention to Johnson, likely double-teaming the talented receiver, and the safeties have to be sure tacklers in the run game.

SDSU — A young, inexperienced secondary has been a huge surprise for SDSU, which leads the league in pass defense. They’ve allowed just three TDs and are holding opponents to 166.4 yards passing per game. Safety Josh Manchigiah is the only starting secondary player who started a game last year. An unknown group has been up to the task.

EDGE — SDSU

SPECIALISTS

YSU — YSU coach Bo Pelini has continuously backed punter Nick DeSalvo all year, but his 34.9-yard average is 86th in the country, and his improvement has been minimal. He did land two punts inside the 20 last week. Place kicker Colt McFadden missed a 44-yarder against UNI. He is 2-for-3 on the season. Jake Coates is one of the conference’s top punt returners.

SDSU — Senior place kicker Chase Vinatieri, the nephew of famed NFL kicker Adam Vinatieri, is one of the top FCS kickers. He has been erratic at times, but he has a very strong leg. He’s 3-of-5 this year, with a long of 39 yards. Punter Ben Dinkel is averaging a solid 42 yards per boot. Jaxon Janke is a dangerous returner with a TD this year.

EDGE — SDSU

PREDICTION

It’s going to take a Herculean effort to beat a team YSU has traditionally struggled against (losing 9 of the last 11).

SDSU has a vastly talented defense and a few superstars to flank an up-and-coming QB. The freshman, however, will be on the road for only the second time in his career.

So much depends on the health of Mays for YSU. The QB brings confidence and big plays to an offense that will need both. If he’s out, the Penguins would be asking an inexperienced QB to beat the No. 3 team in the nation — a very tall task. YSU has hunger on its side. The Penguins are angry following a close loss, and that usually leads to better preparation and improved execution. They’ll need both against one of the best teams in the FCS.

24-14, SDSU.

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