YOUNGSTOWN — There is no doubt that Youngstown State’s season came to a disappointing end when the Penguins were eliminated from the FCS postseason.
But make no mistake – the 2022 campaign was a much-needed step forward for the program under Doug Phillips.
After winning a total of four games in the 2021 seasons — the spring COVID-19 season and then the 2021 fall regular season — the Penguins went 7-4 after a 2-3 start.
With that ending, YSU needs to feel like it has positive energy in the program entering another critical offseason.
Here are some key takeaways from this year’s campaign:
Switch to Davidson
Let’s start with one of the most obvious points. Any midseason quarterback move is a gamble, but Phillips and company got this one right.
The offense was one-dimensional in four games, in large part due to inaccuracy from former starter Demeatric Crenshaw. Davidson, on the other hand, completed 119 of 201 passes (59 percent) and was able to stretch the field with deep passes to Bryce Oliver and the other receivers. He rallied for 1,613 yards and 12 touchdowns.
He also won five of his seven starts and YSU averaged 31.4 points per game during that stretch.
But perhaps the biggest impact of his rise to the starting spot was the relief of All-American Dam Jaleel McLaughlin. With the defense forced to respect YSU’s passing game, McLaughlin’s numbers went up slightly. In the first four games, McLaughlin averaged 129.5 yards per game. In the last seven, that has jumped to just over 185 yards per game, and that stretch has included three 200+ yard performances.
Davidson is now entering a critical off-season where he will look to make more strides forward as a signal caller, but with a full off-season he may have better days ahead.
The defense improved
The Penguins’ defense has been a bright spot this season after a poor showing in 2021. Credit to first-year defensive coordinator Jahmal Brown there.
YSU finished No. 4 in the Missouri Valley with 25.4 points per game and No. 5 overall defense with 354.1 yards per game.
For comparison, the Penguins ranked 10th of 11 Valley teams in scoring defense in 2021 with 34.3 points per game and last in total defense with 455.8 yards per game.
Perhaps the most notable jump was in YSU’s ability to force negative plays. The Penguins finished 25th in the FCS in TFLs and finished fourth in the Valley in sacks.
Running defense was particularly strong, ranking third in the Valley at just 120.2 yards per game.
Most of that credit belongs to the Defense Line, which has taken a huge step forward as of 2021.
Even then, the YSU defense had moments where it kept the team in games until the offense could muster late rallies. Look at the state of Illinois and Southern Illinois for prime examples.
YSU will miss McLaughlin
This states the obvious, but there may not be a McLaughlin-caliber backlog at YSU for a long time, if at all.
He was nicknamed “The Eraser” for his ability to avoid mistakes made by his teammates. McLaughlin’s quickness made him a home run threat every game.
Simply put, I don’t think it’s going to be possible to really replace a jam of McLaughlin’s caliber, and it’s likely that the Penguins will fill that production with a committee moving forward. At the very least, it will be difficult to find someone as elusive and quick as McLaughlin.
All of which means Davidson’s growth at quarterback will be critical because, in some ways, YSU needs to reinvent itself, or at least adapt to life without an All-American running back.
Recruitment will show
It’s now been three seasons under Phillips, and we’re now entering a phase where his staff recruitment and player development – things Phillips touts as YSU’s identity as a program – will really surface.
That was already beginning to come true this season, as YSU’s improved depth paid off on the track when key starters like Griffin Hoak and Latrell Fordham missed games through injuries.
Now we’ll see if these young depth players climbing the depth chart are fully developed and if the YSU staff recruited well enough to keep the depth going.
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