SOUTHERN COMFORT: Penguins’ pickoffs trigger victory in Alabama

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The Youngstown State football team earned the season-opener victory that it was seeking.

Three first-half interceptions helped the Penguins run away from Samford for a 45-22 victory on national television in Saturday’s Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff Classic.

“We came down here and did what we came here to do — win the football game,” YSU head coach Bo Pelini said. “We did a lot of good things on both sides of the ball. It was a fun game to play with a good atmosphere.”

Tipped balls were a factor in all three takeaways for the Penguins in the first half. Vanderbilt transfer Zaire Jones came down with two deflected passes from Bulldogs quarterback Liam Welch in the second quarter.

In addition to Jones’ two picks, John Harper grabbed a Welch pass that tied YSU’s season total in picks last year in a single game.

“Anytime one side of the ball is struggling, you look to the other side for a spark,” Penguins quarterback Nathan Mays said. “It was unbelievable that [the defense] could bail us out three different times against a team that is dynamic to make some plays and get on the scoreboard quickly.”

The Bulldogs (0-1) drew first blood when YSU’s secondary whiffed on two diving tackles when receiver Robert Adams turned a short pass into a 55-yard score.

After that, the Penguins were in control.

YSU (1-0) scored two touchdowns inside the final two minutes of the first quarter. A seven-minute drive ended with Mays finding Samuel St. Surin for a 16-yard TD pass.

On the ensuing Samford drive, Cash Mitchell forced Welch to fumble and as defensive end Ma’lik Richmond bobbled the ball, he ended up tipping the ball back to Mitchell, who returned the fumble for a touchdown.

Jones’ second pick set up Mays to run a two-minute drill capped with a 4-yard TD pass to Josh Burgett. That score, combined with a 43-yard Colten McFadden field goal, gave YSU a 24-7 lead at halftime.

Mays started at quarterback, but redshirt-sophomore Joe Craycraft made cameo appearances in the second, third and fourth quarters.

Craycraft’s first collegiate pass was a screen toss that running back London Pearson took 14 yards in the second quarter. He finished the game going 3 for 3 for 35 yards. Mays went 10 for 18 for 124 yards and touchdowns. He was the team’s leading rusher with 90 yards.

“You never want to come off the field as a competitor — you want to give every ounce of energy that you have — but as hot as it was and with how gloomy Youngstown summers are, it was nice to have a break,” Mays said. “I was gassed and Joe came in and proved that he can handle the offense. He’s good enough to be playing at this level.

“I felt like we played well and it translated on the scoreboard.”

Farrell’s Braxton Chapman scored the first two touchdowns of his career by punching in a pair of 1-yard scores in the fourth quarter.

It was running back by committee for the Penguins. Christian Turner had 13 carries for 89 yards and a fourth-quarter TD. Joe Alessi turned 14 carries into 56 yards and Chapman had 11 carries for 50 yards.

Kyle Hegedus led the YSU defense in tackles with six and Justus Reed had 2.5 sacks.

Austintown Fitch’s Nick DeSalvo made his collegiate debut at punter and averaged 42.8 yards on five punts. He had one mishap with a mishandled snap.

Samford picked up some points in the second half after switching from Welch to Chris Oladokun at quarterback. The South Florida transfer found a wide open Montrell Washington for a 64-yard touchdown pass and rushed for a 10-yard score.