Youngstown State was the gold standard of the FCS, or Division I-AA at the time, in the 1990s. National titles in 1991, 1993, 1994 and 1997 along with runner-up finishes in 1992 and 1999 had the Penguins as one of the premiere teams in the subdivision.
But long removed from the glory days, YSU had taken a lengthy hiatus from the playoffs entering this season. As the Missouri Valley Football Conference churned out playoff bid after playoff bid, the Penguins hadn’t tasted the postseason since 2006.
Excitement returned to the program when Bo Pelini, born in Youngstown and one of the most recognizable names in college football, was named the head coach in December 2014.
YSU went 5-6 in 2015. This season, the Penguins, always a team with talent, shifted into a whole new gear under Pelini.
An 8-3 regular season record led to a berth in the playoffs. Youngstown, a prideful football city, was buzzing. But few YSU fans, and even less nationally, predicted what came next.
Avery Moss/YSU Athletics
A magical playoff run brought the Penguins into national contention. In just two years, Pelini and his staff made those mediocre 7-5, 7-4 seasons seem like a distant memory. Not all magical runs end with smiles and trophies, though. The Penguins ran into a buzz saw Saturday in the national title game. James Madison was all over YSU in a 28-14 win, a score kinder than how the game played out.
But when the taste of defeat washes out, there’s no doubt this has been a milestone season for YSU. The Penguins have returned to national prominence.
An unseeded team who finished third in their conference, the Penguins had to win a second round game at third-seeded and last year’s runner-up Jacksonville State, a double-overtime win at home against Wofford and go to No. 2 Eastern Washington and defeat the Eagles on their red turf in the semifinals.
Kevin Rader hauled in a one-handed catch against the back of a EWU defender with one second left to punch YSU’s ticket to Frisco, Texas, for the title game. It was an improbable catch. But this has been an improbable run for the Penguins.
With the guidance of Pelini and school president Jim Tressel, who coached the Penguins to those four national championships, the reemergence of YSU football was expected. But this quickly? Probably not.
The question now, though, is can this program make more postseason noise next season. YSU had 17 seniors on this year’s roster. Some of those include standout defensive ends Avery Moss and Derek Rivers, running backs Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb and safeties LeRoy Alexander and Jameel Smith.
The Penguins were an experienced bunch this season, especially on defense. With those players gone, the underclassmen having a taste of the national championship game and Pelini getting his recruits into his system, the future of YSU football is one of the more intriguing storylines to watch in the FCS.