Brimming with Confidence, YSU Ready for Kickoff

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Two teams from the Missouri Valley Football Conference met last season in the Football Championship Subdivision championship game. On top of that, five Missouri Valley teams were selected for the playoffs, an FCS record.

But Youngstown State University finished sixth in the conference after another late season slide cost the Penguins a playoff spot. It was then that head coach Eric Wolford was fired and Bo Pelini brought on board.

And since Dec. 17 – the day Pelini walked into the President’s Suite at Stambaugh Stadium to be introduced as YSU’s seventh coach – the mindset about the program has shifted.

“Around camp last year, people knew how it was and dreaded it a little bit. But now, everyone’s excited and ready to go,” says junior defensive end Derek Rivers. “They’re all eager and focused on learning everything. Everybody’s got a new mindset and there’s a new aura around the locker room.”

Practices are more relaxed, with fewer physical drills to help ensure fewer injuries, and some new exercises are now part of the routine.

Every practice ends with a stretching session and Pelini has done weekend yoga sessions a couple of times. Wolford did neither.

One demand Pelini makes of his team is to work hard. Those who make the effort to stand out will earn playing time, the coach says.

“They’re going to be evaluated on everything they do, from every rep and how they carry themselves and how quickly they pick up the schemes,” he says. “If you want to play, you have to put it on film. If you want to be on that bus heading to Pitt or on the field when we kick off, you have to earn it.”

Midway through summer training camp, Pelini said he has seen, “across the board, guys making improvements that need to be made,” clarifying that no particular player stood out above the rest. Training camp, the coach says, is to evaluate the players and then determine who the best are.

What seems primed to stand out for the Penguins this season is the defense. Last season’s team was tied for fewest touchdowns allowed (36), third-fewest total yards allowed (4,531) and the third-fewest points allowed (282) in the Missouri Valley Conference.

This season, with an improved defensive backfield bolstered by three transfers from Football Bowl Subdivision programs, the defense should remain near the top of the conference, if not be No. 1.

“We have so many more weapons in the back seven, which was one of our weak points last season,” says Rivers, who was voted to the conference preseason team. “We brought in so many guys that filled up the depth. That was one of the missing pieces. So our defense can accomplish a lot.”

The three defensive backs who transferred to YSU are safety LeRoy Alexander from University of Nebraska, safety Jalyn Powell from Michigan State University and cornerback Soloman Warfield from University of Iowa. Jamar Pinnock, also a safety, joined the team after two seasons with Scottsdale Community College in Arizona.

On offense, sophomore quarterback Hunter Wells keeps his spot as the Penguins’ starter. His offensive line, which includes all-conference first-team tackle Justin Spencer, promises to be one of the best in recent years with the return of four starters. At 6 feet 5 inches and weighing 315 pounds, Spencer is the smallest of those returning starters.

Junior Matt Bell and sophomore Cole Newsome are competing for the starting spot at center.

Also earning a preseason all-conference selection is running back Martin Ruiz, who ran for 10 touchdowns and 1,320 yards last season. Ruiz, a junior, is just another player who’s noticed a shift in how things get done in training camp.

“It’s nothing but work. Coach Bo came in and all he wants is hard work. That’s all he wants. He’s treating us like men, so we’re all acting like men,” Ruiz says. “The work effort is way better. We’ve got Coach Ben [Iannacchione] in from LSU [Louisiana State University] in the weight room. He’s pushed us hard and worked us out real good this summer.”

Leading the wide receiver corps this seasons is wideout Andrew Williams, who averaged just under five receptions and 88.7 yards per game last year. Joining him as the No. 2 and 3 receivers are fellow senior Andre Stubbs and sophomore I’tavius Harvin.

With the playoffs slipping just out of reach the last three seasons, almost everyone in the Penguins’ camp knows this season fans will define it a success only if that final step is reached.

Athletes, not just football players or even YSU players, have long repeated the mantra “one game at a time.” This year’s team is no different.

“Every team, at this point, has goals for winning their conference, winning a national title and just winning. But we’re going to take each game as it comes,” says Wells, the quarterback.

The season opens in Pittsburgh against the Panthers. Like the Penguins, the Panthers are led by a first-year coach, Pat Narduzzi, who was born and reared in Youngstown. And where Pelini graduated from Cardinal Mooney High School, Narduzzi graduated from archrival Ursuline.

Narduzzi and Pelini also played against each other in high school. But that fact, Pelini says, has no bearing on the season opener.

“Coach Narduzzi is a good coach and Pitt is a good program. It’ll be a heck of a challenge for us,” Pelini says.“It’s YSU against Pitt. We’re both new with our programs. Let’s not make into something it’s not,” he counsels.

“It’s about this group of kids against Pitt. But it will be fun for the area. You should be proud that you have two homegrown people leading two good football programs.”

The last time YSU played Pitt, the Penguins won 31-17, an upset and the program’s first win over an FBS team. That game was the debut for former Panther coach Paul Chryst, now head coach at the University of Wisconsin.

“They played [Pittsburgh] the year before I got here, so I wasn’t part of that,” Ruiz says. “It feels like a big game. In fact I know it is. I’m real excited to open up there. It’s really possible. We’re the underdog, so all the pressure is on them.”

After the opener, the Penguins play two nonconference home games against Robert Morris University and St. Francis University before opening league play at the University of South Dakota.

The Penguins host the defending FCS champion North Dakota State University Nov. 14, the final home game.

“Last year, eight or nine teams [in the Missouri Valley Football Conference] were in the Top 25 [at some point in the season]. Once you hit that conference play, they’re all big games,” says Rivers, the defensive end.

In the FCS preseason coaches’ poll, the Missouri Valley has seven teams in the top 25, including North Dakota State at No. 1, Illinois State University at No. 2 and the University of Northern Iowa – who lost to North Dakota State in the title game – at No. 10.

“I spent a lot of time after spring ball looking at the league, especially the top teams. It’s very good and there’s a lot of talent that’s very well coached,” Pelini says. “I have a lot of respect for the teams we’re going to play. It’s going to be a challenge.”

But with that challenge, some Penguins have bought into the excitement and haven’t tempered their expectations.

“National championship,” Rivers says bluntly. “This program has known national championships and I feel like we can accomplish it this year.”

Pictured: Defensive end Derek Rivers will anchor the Penguins defense, which could be among the best in the Missouri Valley Conference, while running back Martin Ruiz and quarterback Hunter Wells will provide the talent on offense.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.