Resurgent Penguins challenge EWU in FCS semifinals
The students were screaming it at the top of their lungs on a chilly Saturday afternoon in northeastern Ohio:
“Youngstown is back, baby!”
However, most of them are too young to remember the glory days and the four NCAA Division I-AA titles Youngstown State won in the 1990s under Jim Tressel, who went on to the big time at Ohio State.
Coincidentally or not, the Penguins faded back to the pack after Tressel departed, winning more than they lost but never recapturing the glory days. Until Saturday, that is, when YSU outlasted Wofford 30-23 in double overtime to get back to the FCS semifinals for only the second time in 20 years.
“I believed, everybody else did and look what happened?” YSU fan Danny Lion, told a local television reporter. “We’re going to the semifinals!”
That happens to be on Saturday in Cheney, where the 11-3 Penguins will take on second-seeded Eastern Washington for a spot in the FCS title game on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas.
Fans weren’t sure what to expect when Youngstown hired Bo Pelini after he was fired by Nebraska following the 2014 season. Last year, the Penguins were 5-4 and still in the playoff hunt with two games left, but lost by identical 27-24 scores to North Dakota State and Indiana State.
The NDSU game saw the always-combustible Pelini in rare form after a controversial call that went against the Penguins. However, the 48-year-old Pelini has gotten a grip on his temper as well as the temperament of his team this year.
“I said at the beginning of this season – I told Bo, I told the coaches, I told some of the players – I was like, ‘This has a special sense to it, this team,’ ” said Matt Prologo, a defensive back for YSU’s 1991 title team.
“And I think you’re seeing what’s happening right now,” Prologo said after the game.
The Penguins are peaking at the right time. They were 5-4 after a 24-3 loss at North Dakota State, but have won five in a row going into Saturday’s game at Roos Field.
The Penguins have been versatile, too. Earlier this season, they won four straight Missouri Valley Conference games while giving up just four touchdowns.
Lately, the offense has caught up. YSU ended the regular season with a 65-20 win at Missouri State, then opened the playoffs – their first in 10 years – with a 38-24 home win over Samford.
That was supposed to be the end of the line, as YSU hit the road for a second-round game at Jacksonville State, the No. 3 seed and coming off a title-game appearance last season.
However, quarterback Hunter Wells passed for 290 yards, Jody Webb ran for 140 and the Penguins racked up 520 yards overall to stun JSU 40-24.
Back at home last week, the Penguins trailed Wofford 9-0 in the first quarter and went back and forth with the Terriers until Tevin McCaster scored the go-ahead touchdown in the second overtime and Wofford ran out of downs.
“What mattered most was winning,” Webb told the Salem (Ohio) News after setting a school record with 331 all-purpose yards (213 rushing).
“It’s really about just having enough heart to do so,” Webb said.
The Penguins also have enough talent. Thanks partly to 1,258 yards from Webb, they rank seventh in the nation in rushing yards per game (257) and third in time of possession (33 minutes, 36 seconds).
Defensively, YSU is equally stingy against the pass and the run, and ranks 11th in total defense.