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Scouting Report: Week 7

As if the last year couldn’t get any stranger, it did for the Youngstown State football team last week.

The Penguins had their Week 6 game canceled when North Dakota endured a positive COVID-19 test — and subsequent contact tracing — and was forced to remain in its home state. The news came at the last minute, and a YSU team gaining momentum was left without a game.

It’s on to the next one for the Penguins (1-4, 1-4 Missouri Valley Football Conference). YSU travels to Western Illinois for a matchup with the winless Leathernecks (0-5, 0-5).

WIU has struggled defensively, giving up an average of 34.6 points per game — last in the MVFC. The Leathernecks do lead the league in passing as they possess one of the league’s better quarterbacks in Connor Sampson. That makes them dangerous enough to contend with the Penguins.

YSU’s style is rather different. The Penguins’ possess one of the conference’s top rushing attacks to go along with a stout defense. Something has to give when the two different brands of football clash.

QUARTERBACKS

YSU — Some might tag freshman Mark Waid with the “game manager” label because he doesn’t air the ball out 30 times a game. No, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Waid doesn’t throw very often (averaging 12 passes per game), but he finds ways to make big plays at key moments. He is second on the team with 251 rushing yards. His scrambling ability has given teams fits as he can exploit gaps in the defense on passing plays and give the Penguins an extra blocker on run plays. He has made several clutch plays late in games as well.

WIU — Sampson leads the league in passing yards by a large margin. His 1,443 yards are nearly 500 more than the next closest player. He’s also completing 66 percent of his passes, with six touchdowns and six interceptions in a West Coast-style offense that relies on short, quick passes. The Leathernecks have resorted to a heavy passing attack as their run game is last in the league. YSU will need to try and keep Sampson out of a rhythm early in the game.

EDGE — Even

RUNNING BACKS

YSU — Jaleel McLaughlin continued his breakout year with a 166-yard performance two weeks ago against South Dakota. The Notre Dame College transfer (Division II) became quickly acclimated to the FCS level. He and the YSU line are in sync after a slow start as the quick, shifty junior is second in the MVFC with 469 rushing yards. Senior Christian Turner has been a nice complement as a runner and receiver out of the backfield.

WIU — Western Illinois is averaging 55 yards rushing per game, easily the worst in the MVFC. Redshirt freshman Tryvis Ousley leads the Leathernecks with 107 yards and two TDs on 35 carries. WIU is averaging a paltry 2.5 yards per carry and has not cracked 100 yards rushing in any game this season.

EDGE — YSU

WIDE RECEIVERS

YSU — The Penguins have found an offensive identity, and the ground-and-pound style has kind of pushed the development of the passing game to the back-burner for the time being. That’s not likely to change against a high-scoring team like Western Illinois. The Penguins are going to need to start incorporating the play-action pass a bit more to add another dimension to a developing offense. Natavious Payne leads the wide receivers with just six catches. Tight end Jake Benio paces the Penguins with nine receptions for 70 yards.

WIU — Three players have at least 29 catches for the Leathernecks. Senior Dennis Houston (6-2, 205) is second in the league with 38 receptions and third in yardage at 409 yards. Fellow Senior Tony Tate (5-9, 180) is a slot receiver with 33 grabs and 317 yards, and junior Dallas Daniels adds 29 catches for 287 yards. He and Houston each are tied with a team-high two TDs.

EDGE — WIU

OFFENSIVE LINE

YSU — The quick development of the offensive line has been very impressive. This group, which had four players experience their first collegiate appearance in Week 1, struggled mightily the first two weeks. Since then, they have been outstanding, leading the way for McLaughlin against good teams. Offensive line coach Austen Bujnoch deserves a lot of credit, along with the linemen, for expediting a process that usually takes significantly longer.

WIU — WIU’s offensive line is about as inexperienced as the Penguins’ front five. Only one player had starting experience prior to the season, and two of the starters are freshmen. They’ve been decent protecting Sampson, allowing 12 sacks (sixth best in the MVFC), but the run game has been anemic.

EDGE — YSU

DEFENSIVE LINE

YSU — The line has continued to play well even after the loss of end Antoine Cook, a returning starter who entered the transfer portal three weeks ago. East High School graduate and YSU redshirt freshman Chris Fitzgerald had his best game as a Penguin against South Dakota, with three tackles and a sack. Tackle Vinny Gentile and end James Jackson have both been active, with 18 and 16 tackles, respectively — good for fourth and fifth best on the team.

WIU — Sophomore defensive end Hunter Mason (6-3, 235), the lone d-lineman with starting experience entering the season, leads WIU’s 3-4 scheme with three sacks and is second with 3.5 tackles-for-loss. The other two starters have 18 total tackles. A young, inexperienced group has struggled to help stop the run as the Leathernecks are allowing a league-worst 226 yards rushing per game.

EDGE — YSU

LINEBACKERS

YSU — Senior Grant Dixon, a midyear transfer from Marist College, has been a huge pickup. He leads YSU with 39 tackles to go along with three TFLs, two forced fumbles, a sack and an interception. Fellow linebacker Griffin Hoak has been nearly as effective, with 37 stops, three TFLs and a team-high two sacks. These two are quickly becoming a feared tandem in the MVFC.

WIU — This is one of the more experienced position groups for WIU. Defensive captain Eryk Preston (6-4, 255) is more of a pass-rush specialist as the senior leads Western Illinois with four TFLs yet has just 12 tackles. Greg Benton, a sophomore, is third on WIU with 37 stops, and fellow inside LB Herschel Blankenship is next with 33.

EDGE — YSU

SECONDARY

YSU — Much like the inexperienced offensive line, this group has come together quickly. Led by strong safety Zaire Jones, the Penguins are third in the league in allowing just 152.6 yards passing per game. The three passing TDs they’ve yielded is tied for tops in the MVFC. Freshmen corners Troy Jakubec and Keyon Martin cruised through their learning curve and play exceptional.

WIU — The fact that the Leathernecks’ two safeties are leading the team in tackles isn’t a good thing. It means running backs are breaking through the line and the linebackers and reaching the last line of defense. Senior free safety Justin Nutof has a team-best 44 stops, and strong safety Michael Lawson is next with 40. Aside from being last in the league in rushing, WIU is third to last in pass defense (235 yards per game).

EDGE — YSU

SPECIALISTS

YSU — Junior Colt McFadden seems to be finding his groove as place kicker. He was 2-for-2 on field goals against USD, including a 41-yarder that was a career long at windy Stambaugh Stadium. He has made 4-of-6 on the season. The punting game has improved as well, with Paddy Lynch now averaging above 40 yards after a couple of rough games. Punt returner Jake Coates, a Warren JFK grad, is 1 yard shy of the YSU record for career return yards. He’s due for a big return.

WIU — Western Illinois place kicker Mason Laramie is 5-for-7 on field goals with a long of 53 yards — the longest in the MVFC this season. Punter Adam Fellner is a big boy at 6-4, 250, and he’s averaging 41.1 yards per boot. WIU doesn’t have any huge returns on the season, nor has it given any up.

EDGE — WIU

PREDICTION

This should be an interesting test to see if the Penguins are maturing. They’re on the road against a team that, on paper, they should beat. It would be the first conference road win for YSU since 2017.

Youngstown State simply needs to stick with its gamplan of running the football, controlling the clock and playing solid defense. That would likely keep the WIU passing game out of rhythm and allow the Penguins to wear down what has been a weak Western Illinois defense.

However, if the Leathernecks take an early lead and force the Penguins to play catch-up, this could be a difficult matchup for YSU.

The Penguins’ focus seems to be growing stronger each week. Now we’ll see if they can keep it consistent.

YSU, 30-20

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