YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — There were flashes of a team ready to compete at a high level.
None brighter than a 75-yard touchdown pass from Chris Duncan to Griffin Norberg for a 7-0 lead.
Even after host Youngstown State answered with the final 42 points Saturday to drop Valparaiso to 0-2, glimmers of hope remained, especially from the Crusaders senior wideout.
Norberg, who racked up four catches for 97 yards and a touchdown in Valparaiso’s opener against Duquesne, topped that in Youngstown with five receptions for 102 yards and a score.
Pretty good for someone who never played wideout prior to his arrival in Valpo. He was a tight end in high school, started his time at Valparaiso as a fullback, then lost 15 pounds and moved to wide receiver.
“As a kid, I definitely wanted to be a quarterback, but I can’t throw,” Griffin said with a laugh.
His day started innocently enough with a 3-yard catch over the middle. On the Crusaders’ third drive, midway through the first quarter, they lined up with four wide receivers, with Duncan, a sophomore, finding Norberg over the middle. Norberg churned up the field, broke a tackle, then sped his way past two defenders en route to the end zone.
“It’s a route that changes based off of blitz, so when that backer blitzed, I was a hot throw basically for the quarterback,” Norberg said. “I just caught one and then I felt the safety come down and try to tackle me. I just felt his arms on me and I kept running.”
Duncan also found Norberg for a 12-yard screen on third-and-seven in the second quarter.
“Deceptively fast definitely is a great way to put it,” Duncan said. “Coming from a fullback to a wide receiver, you never think he would be fast, but he can do both — possession wide receiver, go up and get it, or he can out-run you.”
The key, per Valparaiso coach Dave Cecchini, is staying healthy.
Last year, Norberg started with a 104-yard opener against Montana and a touchdown catch apiece against Montana and the following week against Duquesne. He had only one more touchdown catch the rest of the year as he battled injuries.
“He is a very talented football player,” Cecchini said. “He can run, he has got great hands, he’s a great competitor, but he’s a big and strong and physical player as well.”
Jean Rene added four catches for 59 yards Saturday — with Rene almost spinning out of a tackle for a highlight-reel touchdown of his own. Duncan nearly found Norberg down the left sideline for another touchdown, but Norberg appeared to be held by his defender — and the only flag turned out to be sideline interference on YSU.
For a while, the Crusaders played the Penguins, who reached the FCS title game two years ago, even.
The game swung late in the first half, when Valparaiso missed a 49-yard field goal and Youngstown State caught fire with a 25-yard run from Tevin McCaster and a 42-yard pass from Montgomery VanGorder to Darius Shackleford. McCaster capped the drive with a one-yard, go-ahead touchdown run.
Duncan followed with one of his few mistakes on the day, forcing a pass that was picked off by Armand Dellovade, setting YSU up on the Valparaiso 30. The Penguins took advantage, bringing a 21-7 lead into the intermission after a 1-yard score from McCaster.
\“We’re a better football team than what we showed the second half,” Cecchini said.
Valparaiso, after notching 145 passing yards in the first half, was held to 40 in the second.
“(Duncan) stepped up huge in several different ways and made some great throws and some really nice reads,” Cecchini said. “He was hampered with a knee injury, so we knew his mobility was limited and that kind of leads me to the one thing that I was disappointed with him is he was very tentative at times with that knee.”
It didn’t help that the Crusaders struggled to establish the run, with 45 yards on 29 carries.
“We still got a lot of work to do,” Griffin said. “We got to be able to last longer in the game and not fall apart like that and just stay up with each other, but we have the ability to do it.”