YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — There's a steam whistle at the south end of Stambaugh Stadium that blows each time the Youngstown State football team does something positive. It was pretty quiet Saturday, Nov. 2.
It was a different story for the walking steam whistle on the Penguins' sideline. Bo Pelini had plenty of things about which to be mad.
The Youngstown State head coach, always simmering anyway, spent most of his team's game against North Dakota State yelling into his headset, crossing his arms in disgust, chewing out assistant coaches and generally looking irate.
When the Bison's Kobe Johnson burst up the middle of the field and returned a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown with less than a minute before halftime to give NDSU a 42-7 lead, Pelini stared down at his feet and didn't look up until Johnson got to the end zone. Then the coach started walking to the locker room, with time left on the clock.
When Johnson sprinted 75 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter, barely touched by a Penguins' defender after taking a handoff, Pelini tossed his clipboard to the turf and held his palms upward to the heavens, a picture of befuddlement.
Or maybe it was resignation.
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What in the name of Jim Tressel was going on?
"We got our ass kicked in all three phases of the game," Pelini said after the game.
It doesn't get much more succinct than that. Or more accurate.
In good old-fashioned Youngstown blue-collar language, that's exactly what happened. The once-proud Penguins, owners of four Football Championship Subdivision national titles, were destroyed 56-17 by the Bison in front a smallish crowd that all but evaporated at halftime.
You can't blame the fans that did show up on a chilly, misty night. The Bison led 42-7 at that point.
This was one of the worst home losses in Youngstown State's history.
It wasn't supposed to be this way, not on this night or any night under Pelini. The coach came from the Great Plains owed a fortune by Nebraska and got the Penguins to the FCS title game after the 2016 season, his second year in the Mahoning Valley. His teams have been known as hard-nosed and physical defensively, but only so-so offensively. They're also inconsistent and undisciplined.
What was on the field against the Bison is anybody's guess. With the playoffs still in the picture for Pelini's team, it was non-competitive and mostly disinterested. When NDSU's Phoenix Sproles caught a pass along the right sideline in the second quarter and began running toward the end zone, Penguins defenders showed little effort in trying to tackle the receiver before he went out of bounds at the 5.
If Pelini's trademark is coaching tough guys in a tough-guy town, something's missing.
"You gotta do your part. And then we didn't get guys on the ground. The tackling was horrendous. From a defensive standpoint, and I'm a defensive coach, that's where I made my hay, that was an embarrassment. That was a joke," Pelini said.
The oddsmakers had the Bison as 17-point favorites before the game, but those who paid attention to Bison-Penguins games of the recent past expected a closer game. Cripes, one dunderhead from this newspaper picked Youngstown State to beat NDSU. (Hint: It was me.) The Penguins never knew what hit them, from a punt Youngstown State muffed that was recovered by NDSU to the beautiful 69-yard rainbow Trey Lance threw to Christian Watson for a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
On the Penguins' next series, starting quarterback and ironman Nathan Mays suffered a gruesome injury when he tried to slide after a short gain and was sandwiched by NDSU's Cole Karcz and Aaron Mercadel. The Youngstown State senior suffered a broken leg and dislocated ankle.
Later, backup quarterback Joe Craycraft had to leave the game with an apparent rib injury The seriousness is unknown, but the Penguins had to turn to true freshman Mark Waid. By that time, the game was long lost.
"They were a lot better football team than us tonight. We didn't do anything well. They are a good football team and we weren't. I given them credit. That's all you can do," Pelini said.
The question is: Where do the Penguins go from here?
Pelini signed a three-year contract extension before the season, but at 5-4 overall and 1-4 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference the Penguins need to win the rest of their games to have a playoff chance. It's not unthinkable considering the teams left on the schedule are South Dakota (3-6, 2-3), Indiana State (3-6, 1-4) and a mediocre Illinois State (6-3, 3-2).
But with what happened Saturday, nobody can say Youngstown State is improving under Pelini.
"We're still here. We're still in Youngstown, Ohio, working. We're not going anywhere. We have a hard-working group of guys. This is terrible, we know. It doesn't feel good," Waid said. "It's a terrible feeling, but like I said this is a hard-working group of guys and we're going to come back and work as hard as we can starting tomorrow, Monday and Tuesday and we're going to get this going."
The young player had to say what he had to say, but there is no evidence Youngstown State under Pelini is going to get anything going.