Both spring practice and the 2021 NFL Draft have come and gone. That means one thing and one thing only for college football fans: it is officially time to turn our full attention to the 2021 college football season. With that in mind, along with vaccination efforts making it seem likely a full 12-game schedule will occur in 2021 (we hope), I am going to look ahead over the next two months and rank Michigan State’s opponents this coming season by easiest (No. 12) to most difficult (No. 1). Up today is the game I deem the easiest: the Youngstown State Penguins.
2020 Record: 1-6
The Penguins, led by head coach, Doug Phillips, are in the FCS and thus did not play in the fall of 2020. Their abridged season started on Feb. 21 with a 25-7 loss in the Fargodome to the North Dakota State Bison and ended with a canceled season finale at home against the North Dakota Fighting Hawks. The only win came at home on March 20 in a 28-10 route of the South Dakota Coyotes. The average loss was 10.5 points in their Penguins’ losses.
To cap it all off, former head coach Bo Pelini (anybody remember that guy from Nebraska?) was found by the NCAA to have had “impermissible contact with a prospect” and found YSU at fault for “failure to monitor the program.” As a result, YSU will receive two years of probation, a $5,000 fine, and a reduction in recruiting visits, communication, and evaluations for the upcoming season.
The Spartans have faced off against the Penguins twice, both games coming in the past decade. MSU is 2-0 in the series, winning 28-6 on Sept. 2, 2011 and again 55-17 on Sept. 14, 2013.
2021 Offensive Outlook
Redshirt freshman quarterback Mark Waid looks to rebound from an injury late in the abridged season that kept him out of the final games of the season. He performed well in six games, completing 63.9 percent on 97 attempts for 527 total yards. Helpful to MSU’s secondary will be his four interceptions compared to just three touchdowns. Junior Joe Craycraft filled in as the quarterback in three total games on the season, going 21-for-44, throwing for 176 total yards and one touchdown with no interceptions.
Junior Jaleel McLaughlin was the lead back for the Penguins and averaged 5.2 yards per carry on 134 rushing attempts while scoring five touchdowns. He started in the final five games of the season and earned All-Missouri Valley second-team honors. Tight end Jake Benio and wide receiver Natavious Payne, both sophomores, look to return next season after tying with senior Andrew Ogletree for the team high of 12 total catches on the year. Payne averaged just 20.1 yards per game while Benio averaged just 12.6 yards per game.
The offense was run heavy, averaging 166.7 rushing yards and 100.4 passing yards per game. The Penguins scored 15.4 points per game.
2021 Defensive Outlook
Likely gone will be senior and All-Missouri Valley first-team linebacker Grant Dixon who led the team in total tackles with 55. However, sophomore linebacker Griffin Hoak looks to return after ranking second in total tackles for the team with 46. Also back will be freshman and All-Missouri Valley honorable-mention cornerback Keyon Martin who tallied 24 total tackles, 19 solo tackles, and one interception on the season.
The defense gave up an average of 312.1 yards and 21.9 points per game. The yardage was relatively balanced with 163.7 coming through the air and 148.4 on the ground.
Why No. 12?
Not only is Youngstown State an FCS program, they are a struggling one at that. MSU didn’t schedule the NDSU Bison here or even a 2007 Appalachian State team. YSU is a struggling FCS program not suddenly righting the ship this fall. Plus, the Penguins — along with the other FCS programs — are playing back-to-back seasons in the spring and fall. That could possibly mean that Youngstown State is more fatigued and less healthy than Michigan State entering the game.
Even if Michigan State is coming into this one after a debilitating tough loss to Northwestern in the season opener, the Penguins should offer up a great rebound to build some confidence and cohesion among the roster prior to a road trip down to Miami (Florida) the following week. This is the buying-est of buy games on the Spartans’ schedule for the fall and thus falls in at No. 12 in my rankings of difficult games.
If this game is all-but-over by halftime then it should leave Spartan fans feeling pretty good about themselves. Even just a one or two touchdown lead should leave fans feeling all right at the break, but don’t expect this one to rival 2013’s blowout most likely. The Spartans get a win here, no question, and focus more on building unit cohesion and confidence than in running up the score.