YSU AT SO. ILLINOIS
When: Saturday; kickoff at 3 p.m.
Where: Saluki Stadium, Carbondale, Ill.
TV/Radio: WBCB (CW)/WKBN-AM 570
By Joe Scalzo
Ex-Youngstown State coach Jim Tressel may not have attended Saturday’s halftime ceremonies honoring the 1991 national championship team, but his presence was still felt.
Like his predecessor, Jon Heacock, Penguins coach Eric Wolford is learning what it’s like when you live in the shadow of Tressel’s success.
“There’s a standard around here,” Wolford said at the beginning of this year’s training camp. “You guys know what the standard is. I don’t shy away from it. I embrace it.
“We’re going to get back to the standard that’s acceptable around here.”
Since that is the standard Wolford embraced, that is the standard by which this year’s team must be measured. And after Saturday’s 35-28 loss to South Dakota State — YSU’s second straight in conference play and third overall — it’s clear the Penguins are nowhere close.
“We just haven’t arrived yet,” Wolford said. “It’s very difficult, as you guys can tell.
“I’ve coached a lot of football. I’ve been through a lot of hard times. Good and bad. And I can assure you that this is a difficult loss for myself, our players and our program.”
Tressel won two games in his first year in 1986, then won eight in 1987, beginning a run of 10 playoff appearances in 13 years. After Tressel left for Ohio State in 2001, Heacock made the playoffs just once in his nine seasons and was replaced by Wolford last season.
While last year’s 3-8 record could be attributed in part to the huge amount of roster turnover that occurred in Wolford’s first year, this year’s 2-3 start is more puzzling.
And more disappointing, said senior DT Andrew Johnson.
“It does because I feel like we’re a lot more talented,” said Johnson, one of four co-captains. “I think we have a lot more skills at different positions. I don’t feel like we should lose against any team in this conference. That’s not being arrogant or anything; that’s how I feel our talent level is.
“We’ve just got to show up.”
Considering the team’s youth and inexperience, particularly on defense, it’s clear that the coaches and players should have done more to temper expectations. (Several players even talked about wanting to win a national championship this year, when competing for a playoff spot seemed like a more reasonable goal.)
Making matters worse, YSU still has November road games against the two best teams in the conference: North Dakota State and Northern Iowa.
Last year’s team was marked not just by its close losses, but its ability to stay together and stay competitive even when it was clear that there was nothing to play for but pride. This year’s team needs to do the same.
That’s what makes Saturday’s road game against Southern Illinois so crucial, said junior RB Jamaine Cook.
“You know what happens when things are going downhill like this,” said Cook, another captain. “We’ve got to keep guys together. Because either we’re going to come together or we’re going to fall apart.”
Like last season, YSU’s most immediate concern is with its secondary. The Penguins have often looked helpless against spread offenses and allowed a redshirt freshman quarterback in his third start, South Dakota State’s Austin Sumner, to torch them for 345 yards and four touchdowns.
If you’re wondering how that happened, consider this: Youngstown State started three freshmen linebackers, two freshmen cornerbacks and two safeties, junior Sir Aaron Taylor and senior Scott Sentner, who were starting their first career games.
“We got to find some guys at the right spots somewhere,” Wolford said. “I don’t know how we’re going to do it. But we’ve got to do something.”
In Saturday’s postgame press conference, Wolford said the coaches will make some depth chart changes this week. Ultimately, though, there’s not much they can do.
Wolford and his staff may eventually build YSU into a perennial playoff contender, but it’s clearly not going to happen this year.
“It’s a process,” Wolford said. “I’m very impatient, just like a lot of people. But I don’t think it’s going to be an overnight process.”