YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Turns out, the lightning show that delayed the start of Saturday night’s Missouri Valley Football Conference opener could be upstaged after all.
And after over 900 yards of combined offense and 77 points, who would have guessed that it would be a defensive stand — and a controversial call — that decided it?
But No. 4 Youngstown State came up with the stop when it needed it most, holding off No. 8 UNI, 42-35, in a thrilling conference opener before 19,277 at Stambaugh Stadium.
The Panthers (1-3, 0-1) trailed by two touchdowns late in the first half, but started a rally that saw them score 28 of the game’s next 35 points, only to see Youngstown State (4-0, 1-0) stage a comeback of their own, scoring the go-ahead points with 1:50 remaining in the game.
But UNI drove to the Penguins’ 11 in the game’s final seconds, setting up a wild finish that will be debated for some time.
With 22 seconds remaining, redshirt freshman quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen converted a huge fourth down-and-10 play for 14 yards to Chad Owens. Then Kollmorgen, who finished with 333 yards through the air and three touchdowns, hit Brett LeMaster for 7 yards to the YSU 11 with five seconds to go.
That set up the final play. Kollmorgen had LeMaster across the middle, but two Penguins defenders combined to strip the ball away. At the goal line, a penalty flag was thrown. Both sides erupted, in far different ways, when the call was made – offensive pass interference, ending the game.
“I’m still waiting to find out who the call was on,” said UNI’s Mark Farley, more than 30 minutes after the game ended. Farley suffered his first loss to the Penguins as a head coach. “You’d think they would indicate at some point who the penalty was on.”
Farley was also led to believe there was some time still left following the play.
“They [the officials] are all out there with one finger in the air, meaning there was one second to play. Then they huddled and seemed to be confused out there.”
And, as it turned out, 11 years of frustration for YSU. It marked the Penguins’ first victory over UNI since Oct. 18, 2000.
“At first I thought the call was going against us,” said YSU sophomore free safety Donald D’Alessio, who was credited with the pass breakup. “But then I went through the play in my head, and then they [the officials] said our cornerback got picked.”
None of that sat well with the UNI side.
“They’re a good football team, no doubt about it,” said Farley. “We fought back, had control, and then we couldn’t get off the field [defensively] on third and fourth downs.”
Sophomore running back David Johnson and Kollmorgen led the Panthers’ comeback from a 21-7 first-half deficit.
Johnson finished with 87 yards rushing and two touchdowns — he had 64 yards and both TDs after halftime — and caught six passes for 76 yards and two more scores.
Kollmorgen finished 23 of 38 and three scores. His worst play was a key interception in the third quarter with the Panthers inside the YSU 30 and the score tied at 28.
“Our quarterback has been excellent,” said Farley. “It’s good to know we’re going to have him around for a long time.”
Kurt Hess was 20 of 28 for 290 yards and four TDs for the Penguins, who began the season with a victory at FBS Pittsburgh. All-American running back candidate Jamaine Cook ran for 146 yards and a score, and tight end Will Shaw caught five passes for 95 yards and a TD.
“I feel a lot of energy, but also a lot of relief,” said Hess. “It’s definitely a significant win for our football team but we need to get refocused on Monday for next week.”
The Panthers closed to 21-14 with just 27 seconds remaining before halftime when Kollmorgen fired a 5-yard scoring pass to Johnson. That culminated a seven-play, 58-yard drive, which included a 30-yard Kollmorgen-to-Terrell Sinkfield completion that gave UNI a first down at the Penguins’ 2.
The Panthers began the second half with two quick touchdown drives – Anderson returned the second-half kickoff to midfield, and two plays later Kollmorgen found Johnson wide open in the flat. Johnson reversed his field and ran untouched to the end zone for the tying touchdown.
After a Youngstown State drive stalled, the Panthers forced a punt and took over at their 36. Six plays later Johnson split the defense with a delayed handoff and ran to the end zone from 23 yards out to make it 28-21 with 8:59 remaining in the third quarter.
The Penguins answered with a nine-play, 86-yard drive to tie the score. On fourth down and 2 from the UNI 43, Hess’ play-fake froze the secondary and he lofted a perfect 43-yard pitch and run to tight end Will Shaw for the touchdown, again tying the score at 28 with 4:51 to go in the quarter.
UNI then drove to the Penguins; 28, but on third down and 3 Kollmorgen’s pass was intercepted by Jeremy Edwards at the YSU 14.
After a three-and-out by the Penguins, UNI drove 60 yards in seven plays with Johnson scoring for the fourth time, from 16 yards out, to make it 35-28 with 12:42 remaining in the game.
Again YSU answered, driving 74 yards in 12 plays, with Torrian Pace scoring from the 1. Two plays earlier Hess delivered a 26-yard pass to Shaw on fourth down from the Panthers’ 29.
Youngstown State took the opening kickoff and moved smartly for its first touchdown. Cook’s 3-yard run culminated a 12-play, 75-yard possession. Cook had five carries for 35 yards on the push.
UNI answered with a seven-play, 77-yard scoring drive to tie the score. The touchdown came when Sawyer Kollmorgen hit a bubble screen to Terrell Sinkfield, who broke a tackle at about the 30 and ran untouched into the end zone.
Youngstown State answered with a five-play, 80-yard drive, ending in a Hess-to-Andrew Williams touchdown pass of 38 yards. Hess’ play-fake sucked in the safety and he hit a wide-open Williams in stride.
“We have much bigger goals than being undefeated after four games,” said YSU coach Eric Wolford. “If we want to play 15 or 16 games this season, we have to understand we’ve only played a fourth of our schedule.”
The start of the game was delayed 45 minutes by a severe thunderstorm that slammed the area. Winds reached a sustained 24 miles per hour around two hours before scheduled kickoff, and when lightning flashed officials called the special teams units off the field.
“It wasn’t too big of a deal,” said junior linebacker Jordan Gacke. “We just tried to stay calm, stay focused. We had time to come back and get ready.”