CARBONDALE — What some people believe makes football the greatest team game is hurting Youngstown State more than turnovers, penalties or lack of effort.
Penguin coach Bo Pelini pointed out two plays during his weekly press conference, one on offense and one on defense, that might have turned for the better had 11 guys done the right thing instead of 10 on Saturday at Western Illinois. The Leathernecks jumped out ahead 23-7 in the third quarter, only to see Youngstown State come within six points with 11:26 to play.
Western Illinois won 45-38 to snap the Penguins' nine-game winning streak in Missouri Valley Football Conference openers.
"It's missed assignments. It's losing your focus during the game. Not applying what we do in practice to the game field," Pelini said. "We gotta coach it better, we gotta play better. I've said this through the first month. There are times where we're really good, and there are times where we're beating ourselves, and that's happening way too much."
Picked fourth in the conference's preseason poll, Youngstown State still appears to have championship-caliber pieces. Linebacker Armand Dellovade was one of the league's leading tacklers last season and has 38 stops in four games this year, 24 of them solos. Defensive tackle Savon Smith, one of six senior starters on defense, has one of the Penguins' seven sacks and two quarterback hurries this year.
Montgomery VanGorder, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior from Notre Dame, completed a school-record 33 passes on 57 attempts for 418 yards and three touchdowns. His attempts, completions and yards were all new Youngstown State marks. VanGorder has completed 75 of 129 attempts (58.1 percent) for 1,011 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions, two of which came at Western Illinois.
"I think he's playing pretty good football," Pelini said. "We gotta play better around him, I can tell ya that, because, as many yards as he threw for and as well as he did, we don't bust some routes out there, we have some big plays that we left out there on the field, especially in that first half."
The Penguins also return all-conference running back Tevin McCaster (419 yards, five touchdowns on 85 carries), sophomore Christian Turner (5.2 yards a carry) and four senior offensive linemen, which SIU coach Nick Hill believes the Penguins may try to use more this weekend.
"They got behind and threw it 37 times in the second half, and did a good job of it. It got them back in the game and he threw for 400-some yards," Hill said. "That's what I mean. He's a good quarterback. He's an athletic kid, but, two elite-level backs. Preseason all-conference first team back with an offensive line that's played a lot of football, and that's their staple, is to run the ball. They'll continue to do it and we gotta continue to stop it."
SIU (1-3, 0-1 MVFC) will try to end a three-game losing streak at Youngstown State (1-3, 0-1) Saturday at 5 p.m. The Salukis' only win this season came in the opener at Murray State, when they scored three defensive touchdowns in a 49-10 rout. The Penguins' only win this year came against Valparaiso, a non-scholarship program in the Pioneer League, in Week 3 but they lost a close game to Butler (23-21) and came within seven against Western Illinois.