Second-half stunner

YSU gives up 35 points after half in loss to SDSU

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes Youngstown State coach Bo Pelini yells at an official after a play in the end zone in the fourth quarter of the Penguins’ 38-28 loss to South Dakota State on Saturday at Stambaugh Stadium.

YOUNGSTOWN — Usually angry and volatile following games, Youngstown State coach Bo Pelini walked into the postgame press conference calm and collected.

Pelini was undoubtedly upset, but he kept his composure under pressure.

If only his team had done the same thing.

The No. 17-ranked Penguins unraveled in the second half of a Missouri Valley Football Conference showdown with third-ranked South Dakota State, allowing 35 second-half points in a 38-28 loss Saturday at Stambaugh Stadium.

YSU (4-2, 0-2) led 14-3 at the break and then 21-9 midway through the third quarter, but then the Penguins came apart with a little help from the referees.

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes Kyle Hegedus (right) and Cash Mitchell (bottom) bring down SDSU RB Mikey Daniel in the first quarter.

The Jackrabbits (5-1, 2-0) scored 29 points in the final 15:40 of the game to stun a crowd of 12,381.

“We made too many mistakes in the second half,” Pelini said. “We busted a coverage, we turned the ball over. We didn’t play good enough in the second half. We were our own worst enemy. I’m not taking anything away from them. They played well in the second half, but we helped them a lot.”

The downfall may have actually started late in the first half.

YSU faced a fourth-and-1 at the SDSU 27, and the Penguins took a chance by launching a deep pass down the sideline to Kendric Mallory. Mallory’s jersey was being visibly pulled from his shoulder pad as the ball sailed over his head, but no penalty was called. So YSU turned the ball over on downs.

Things got worse early in the third quarter.

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes Nate Mays breaks off a 28-yard touchdown run in the first quarter at YSU.

The Penguins led 14-3 and had the ball near midfield. Quarterback Nathan Mays tried to force a pass into a tight window, but the ball was tipped by SDSU star linebacker Christian Rozeboom right into the waiting arms of cornerback Don Gardner, who sprinted 42 yards for a touchdown.

That cut the lead to 14-9 as the two-point conversion failed. YSU bounced back with Mays tossing a quick swing route to running back Joe Alessi on a nifty play design. Alessi ran 45 yards untouched for a TD and a 21-9 lead, but nothing seemed to go right from there.

The wave of momentum, from penalties and big plays by SDSU, created a downward spiral from which YSU couldn’t recover.

“It affects us big,” said senior linebacker Cash Mitchell of the some of the calls, “because you’re playing so hard, you’re getting off the field, but then you get a penalty called on you, and it just puts you down. But we’ve just got to learn how to get over that and play better.”

The second questionable call came late in the third quarter.

The Jackrabbits faced third-and-goal from the YSU 9-yard line. A fade route to the back corner fell incomplete, but defensive pass interference was called on Zaire Jones. Replays showed the receiver falling to the ground untouched. SDSU, given a first-and-goal at the 2, scored on the next play as quarterback J’Bore Gibbs plunged in to cut YSU’s lead to 21-16.

YSU responded with a solid drive and was at the SDSU 19-yard line, but center Matt Jones was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after Mays was sacked. The call pushed the Penguins back to the 36-yard line, and they went from third-and-6 to third-and-21.

YSU had to punt after a short completion and the Jackrabbits took the momentum. Gibbs hit a wide-open Cade Johnson for an 81-yard TD pass to give SDSU its first lead, 24-21, since the opening quarter.

“We made a selfish play, getting the personal foul when we’re driving offensively,” Pelini said. “That’s childish. That’s not what a championship football team does. We’ll learn from it. I still think this football team is capable of a lot, but we’ve got to stop getting in our own way. We got in our own way in that second half. We showed what we’re capable of in the first half, but you’ve got to sustain it.”

Trailing 24-21, Mays fired another errant pass that was tipped and intercepted on the ensuing drive. The Jackrabbits scored again to essentially seal the victory.

While the Penguins have dropped their first two league games, they’re certainly not out of the playoff picture. They need a win as they travel to Southern Illinois next Saturday.

“It hurts,” said Alessi, who ran for a team-high 72 yards on 17 carries. “We’re all upset. We had that game. We should have won that game, but we let it slip away from us. Coach gave a good speech. We have to realize we’re 4-2. The two teams we lost to were good teams. We just need to bounce back, and we’ll be good. We’ll see those teams again in the playoffs.”