By Dan Hiner
After clinching its first Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth in 10 years, the Youngstown State University football team watched the selection show on Sunday afternoon to see who it will play in the first round.
YSU will play Samford University, the fourth-place finisher in the Southern Conference. Samford was ranked 23th in the final STATS poll and 18th in the final FCS coaches poll.
For YSU safety LeRoy Alexander, the matchup came as a bit of a surprise. Most of the projected brackets had YSU playing Villanova University or St. Francis University.
“We saw Villanova before in the bracket, and also, St. Francis,” Alexander said. “But Samford, we hear they like to pass the ball. It’s gonna be on the DB’s this game. We’re gonna have to come out this week for practice.”
With YSU’s 65-20 win over Missouri State University, the Penguins overcame a recent hurdle. The Penguins combined to go 3-8 in the November since 2013. Most of those games would have allowed YSU to make the playoffs, but the collapses in the final month of the season prevented the program from moving forward.
“They always say championships are won in November, and our focus was to win out in November and have a lot of momentum going forward,” Alexander said. “From here on, we just gotta keep that momentum. Our offense is doing really well. If they can keep us up like that, we can keep them up.”
Since head coach Bo Pelini took over two seasons ago, the Penguins’ goal was to get back to the playoffs. Now Pelini said the goal has become a visit to the national championship.
“I’m proud of these kids. I believe we’ve come a ways in the last year and a half or whatever it is,” Pelini said. “I was really disappointed we didn’t do it a year ago. I thought we would have done it a year ago, and it didn’t happen. I think it’s been a while — I don’t know how long. That’s what we’re in it for. We’re in it to win and compete for a national championship. And this [gives us] an opportunity. Can’t win unless you get in, right?”
The YSU football players have been practicing, preparing and playing since August. Pelini said the biggest challenge for any playoff team isn’t the physical toll, but the mental fortitude needed to keep preparing and practicing for another one to five weeks.
“This will be a grind, but that’s what I’ve been challenging our team with,” Pelini said. “As you keep moving forward throughout the year, somebody’s gonna do it. Somebody’s gonna be mentally tough enough to do it. And it’s not just the grind to get through and win football games, it’s the grind to prepare. It’s the grind to prepare and win games during the week. That’s what it comes down too. Saturdays, yeah it’s important, but if you don’t do it during the week, it’s not going to happen on Saturday.
“I think our kids understood that. I think that’s been the difference between last year and this year. Our kids are willing to pay the price, and we’ve become more consistent during the week.”
Pelini said the team has taken a business-like approach this season. He said the team has focused on one game at a time. Pelini said the Penguins have to take that mindset into the playoffs and not get ahead of themselves by looking forward to the next round.
“I’m pretty consistent. Because really, what is necessary to keep moving forward doesn’t change,” Pelini said. “Yeah you enjoy it. You say ‘we made the playoffs. We got bigger things in mind’ … at least I do and I know this football team does. You got to earn your way through it. You got to earn your way to that next opportunity and it starts Saturday and that’s where my whole focus will be.”