By Joe Scalzo
Youngstown State quarterback Kurt Hess was sitting in class earlier this week when one of his classmates started reminiscing about YSU’s playoff atmosphere.
“And I said, ‘I don’t know what it’s like,’” Hess said. “I haven’t experienced it. I’m looking forward to it. You hear about it all the time.”
After a 2-3 start, the Penguins have won four of their last five games and enter today’s contest against Missouri State with their playoff hopes very much alive.
That reality, combined with last weekend’s win over top-ranked North Dakota State, has made today’s game much more interesting than expected.
The question is, will the fans come?
Today’s forecast — 55 degrees and sunny — is as good as it gets for Ohio in November. But with a 1 p.m. start against the worst team in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, YSU may have to host a playoff game to get a playoff-type atmosphere this season.
YSU is 21st in the country in attendance at 14,353 per game — that’s tickets distributed, not actual fans in the seats — which is less than 70 percent capacity and almost 14,000 fewer than first place Appalachian State.
(When asked about today’s ticket sales, a YSU official simply said, “Could be better.”)
“We’ll keep taking care of business and they’ll want to come,” said YSU coach Eric Wolford. “When I first got here, all I ever heard about was, ‘Coach, I just want to see your guys play hard, to see you compete to the end of the game.’
“They didn’t say anything about wins, losses, playoffs, championships. All they ever said was, ‘Play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.’”
While some fans may still be taking a wait-and-see attitude, YSU’s recent success has caught the eye of recruits. The Penguins picked up three verbal commitments this week — they have six for the season — and making the postseason would give them a big boost heading into the offseason.
“This recruiting class, we’re doing unbelievable,” said Wolford. “We’ll see what it looks like in February but kids want to play for a national championship.
“Youngstown State is one of three schools in Ohio where you can say you can win a national championship. You’ve got Mount Union, you’ve got Ohio State and you’ve got Youngstown State.”
And that, Wolford said, isn’t just recruiting spin.
“It’s proven,” he said. “It’s been done. And that’s something kids want to do. Something you can take with you for the rest of your life. We’ve got a long way to go but that’s what the standard is and that’s what we continue to try toward. It’s going to take special people who want to do special things.”