CARBONDALE — The defense is getting its swagger back, and the offense may be getting its starting quarterback back Saturday at SIU.
Youngstown State, once ranked third in the country and now out of the playoff picture as much as the Salukis, may finally be getting back in sync a bit. The Penguins (4-5, 2-4 Missouri Valley Football Conference) ended a four-game losing streak with a 66-24 win at winless Indiana State last weekend. Their third starting quarterback this season, senior Ricky Davis, accounted for six touchdowns and set career highs in passing yards (349) and rushing yards (98).
The defense allowed two 70-yard scoring plays, but intercepted three passes and limited the Sycamores (0-9, 0-6) to five third-down conversions on 14 tries.
"We got our swagger back, as coach Carl Pelini would say," Youngstown State defensive end Fazson Chapman said. "Before the game, he just said we gotta go out there and play the way we know how to play, the way we're coached to, and good things will happen. I feel like the team is finally getting that swagger back."
Chapman, a senior from Chicago who will have a sort of homecoming this weekend in Carbondale, is tied for the team lead with four sacks and leads Youngstown State with 6.5 tackles for loss.
The swagger came and went for Youngstown State this season. The Penguins largely outplayed Pittsburgh, an FBS opponent, on the road in the opener but lost 28-21 in overtime. Quarterback Hunter Wells threw for 311 yards against the Panthers, but was hurt in the Week 4 loss at fourth-ranked South Dakota State and hasn't played since. Nathan Mays, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, filled in for three straight wins, followed by three agonizing losses in a row.
South Dakota beat Youngstown State 31-28 on a last-second field goal, and North Dakota State defeated the Penguins in overtime on another one a week later, 27-24. At Northern Iowa, Youngstown State fell 19-14, and then came a 35-0 debacle at Illinois State that head coach Bo Pelini called an embarrassment.
Bo Pelini said Tuesday Wells has started throwing the football and will be available for Saturday's 1 p.m. kickoff at SIU (4-5, 2-4). How much he progresses this week in practice will determine how much he'll play, Pelini said.
While Youngstown State can run the ball like crazy — the Penguins rushed 55 times for 289 yards and five touchdowns at Indiana State — its 151 points in league play are tied for the eighth-fewest in the Valley with Illinois State. Youngstown State has had the same offensive linemen all year, aside from some changes at right guard, and running backs Tevin McCaster (4.3 yards a carry), Christian Turner (4.9) and Joe Alessi (10.8) all average over four yards a carry.
Defensively, the Penguins have been tough against the pass and are 25th in the country in scoring defense (20 points allowed per game). Indiana State, which threw for 265 yards last weekend, became only the second team all year to pass for more than 160 yards against Youngstown State.
Even without starter Sam Straub, SIU threw for 257 yards and three touchdowns in last weekend's 36-28 loss to Missouri State. Behind 156 yards receiving from Israel Lamprakes and 96 from Billy Reed, the Salukis threw for 366 yards and a touchdown in last year's 21-14 loss at Youngstown State. SIU coach Nick Hill said there wasn't anything easy that day, and there probably won't be a lot of room for error this weekend, either.
"They make it difficult for you to find space, and they're gonna challenge your receivers," Hill said. "There's nothing easy since I've coached against coach Pelini. It's tough sleddin'. You've gotta work for all your yards. You've gotta make plays. You're gonna have to make some plays on some contested throws. Last year, whenever we got rollin', they were not easy plays."