VERMILLION, S.D. – Miaculously, Youngstown State is still in the FCS playoff hunt despite a 1-4 record in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
To do that, though, the Penguins (5-4 overall) will probably have to win each of their last three games, beginning with a Saturday tilt against South Dakota (3-6, 2-3) at the DakotaDome.
“I don’t worry about that,” Youngstown State Coach Bo Pelini said during his weekly press conference. “You have to win football games. At this point we want to finish 8-4, that’s what our goal is. What I’m worried about is today and getting better and giving yourself an opportunity. In the end that’s out of your hands. You win football games and let the chips fall as they may.”
South Dakota would not only like to put an end to any postseason hopes for Youngstown State, but is also hoping to snap a three-game losing skid in the 2 p.m. contest.
The Coyotes have averaged 30 points and 464 yards in its recent skid, but 13 turnovers and trouble converting on fourth down (3-for-9) have kept more points off the board.
USD had a 20-7 lead midway through the third quarter at Western Illinois last Saturday. The Leathernecks, however, rallied and turned it into a shootout, scoring late then turning back a last-ditch Coyote effort in the closing seconds.
“We left a lot of points on the board in the third quarter,” South Dakota Coach Bob Nielson said. “We had a couple drives deep in their territory and all you do is come out of it with a field goal. Then when they got a touchdown they got a little momentum coming back.
“We make a couple mistakes defensively and all of a sudden it’s a ball game. We responded to it, came back offensively to score twice and take the lead and then just couldn’t hold on the last minute like we needed to.”
What made last week’s loss even harder to take was the fact that Western Illinois hadn’t won a game all season and hadn’t generated much offense.
“I thought we defended them well in the first half but they came out and started throwing the ball a lot more in the second half,” Nielson said. “We gave up too many yards through the air and too many conversions when we had opportunities to get off the field. That part of the day was certainly disappointing that we didn’t some stops in the second half when we needed to.”
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Despite no wins to show for it, the Coyotes continue to click offensively. Austin Simmons still leads the conference in passing and needs 18 yards to reach 6,000 for his career. Kai Henry has back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances, the first Coyote since 2015 to accomplish that feat.
Youngstown State ranks 56th in the FCS in run defense, allowing 152 yards per game. The Coyotes, though, have yet to outrush Youngstown in seven meetings.
Youngstown State is the first of three talented teams left on USD’s schedule. The Coyotes play at defending national champion North Dakota State next week before closing the season at home against South Dakota State.
“We have three really good football teams left on our schedule, the kind of games we’re going to have to prepare hard for and play much better football than we did over these past three weeks,” Nielson said. “We’ve been way too inconsistent. To win games in this league you have to play 60 minutes of really good football and have answers when teams start to surge and that was the disappointing thing on Saturday.”
Nielson said there are some positives to build on heading into the final three games.
“Offensively we’ve moved the ball for the most part well all year,” Nielson said. “We had a chance to blow that game wide open Saturday but we had five possessions in their territory where we scored no points and two where we had to take field goals.
“It was a combination of things. We had a fumble, didn’t convert on a couple of first downs and had offensive penalties that took us out of scoring range. In games like that another touchdown in the first half or third quarter separates that game and changes the outcome.”
Youngstown State lost senior quarterback Nathan Mays to an ankle injury in a 56-14 loss to North Dakota State last week. Sophomore Joe Craycraft is expected to start, although true freshman Mark Waid can still play one more game without burning a season.
Defensively, the Penguins have registered more sacks and turnovers than last season. A physical defensive line is led by Justus Reed, who has 8.5 sacks and 1.3 tackles for loss.
“They’re a real good football team that dominated their non-league schedule,” Nielson said. “They’ve played a tough eary league schedule but at the same time it shows you how well you have to play in our league to win any game.”
Youngstown State’s four MVFC losses are to UNI (21-14), South Dakota State (38-28) and Southern Illinois (35-10). The Penguins demolished the same Western Illinois team that USD lost to last weekend by a 59-14 count.
“There’s no quit in our football team,” Nielson said. “We have some guys who are certainly frustrated and disappointed. There’s only one way to change that and that’s to change the course and get a win.”