By Joe Scalzo
Following Saturday’s 27-6 victory over Indiana State, Youngstown State University coach Eric Wolford made his case for the Penguins’ playoff hopes.
No need. Over the previous three hours, they made it for him.
Playing maybe their most complete game in the Wolford era, YSU (7-4, 4-4 Missouri Valley Football Conference) dominated the nation’s 18th-ranked team to become playoff eligible for the first time since 2006.
“We did what we can control today,” Wolford said. “We’ll keep our fingers crossed.”
Jamaine Cook rushed for 124 yards and a touchdown to become the school’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards and Kurt Hess threw for 248 yards and two touchdowns to break the school’s career mark for TD passes with 53.
YSU outscored the Sycamores 21-3 in the second half, held their standout running back, Shakir Bell, to a season-low 54 yards (after he gashed the Penguins for 256 last year) and forced two turnovers.
“We went out there and laid it on the line,” senior DT Aronde Stanton said. “Hopefully it was enough.
“It kind of bothers me [to be on the playoff bubble] because I know there’s a few games we left out there or we wouldn’t be in this situation. It is what it is. We put ourselves in this situation.”
The playoffs pairings will be announced today at 1:30 p.m. on ESPNU. Ten conference champions earn automatic bids with 10 more teams earning at-large bids.
MVFC commissioner Patty Viverito told the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Argus Leader that she thinks three conference bids are a given, with YSU having an outside shot of joining conference champion North Dakota State (10-1, 7-1), South Dakota State (8-3, 6-2) and Illinois State (8-3, 5-3).
YSU’s case is built around its FBS win over Pitt, its three-game winning streak to end the season and its difficult October schedule that featured road games against the MVFC’s three best teams. Seven of YSU’s 10 FCS opponents were ranked in the top 25 at some point in the season.
“Hopefully we did enough for the committee to take a look at us,” Wolford said. “I think our conference deserves to have four teams in the playoffs.
“I feel confident we’ll have good fortune.”
The case against YSU is built around its 4-4 conference record (sixth-best in the MVFC), with three of those wins coming against non-winning teams. Two other wins came against partial-scholarship Albany and non-scholarship Valparaiso.
Since 1986, only 17 at-large teams have made the playoffs with a 7-4 record. The MVFC has only had four teams qualify once, in 2003, but the Colonial Athletic Association has had four or more in each of the last five years.
After Saturday’s game, Stanton said he hoped “the good Lord takes care of us.”
Cook and Rich both mentioned “the man upstairs.” Wolford did too.
“It’s been said once or twice [in the locker room],” senior linebacker Dom Rich said of the need for some divine intervention. “We’re hoping he’s on our side tomorrow.”
Former Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne once said, “I’ve found prayers work best when you have big players.”
And postseason prayers work best when you get big wins. Question is, was Saturday’s big enough?