By Joe Scalzo
With eight wins, many fans are wondering if Youngstown State is already in the playoffs.
As far as the Penguins are concerned, the playoffs start Saturday against South Dakota State.
“This is our first playoff game,” senior cornerback Dale Peterman said. “Everybody understands the situation. If we lose, we don’t control whether we’re in the playoffs or not. But if we win, we’re in.”
After winning eight of their first nine games, the Penguins (8-3, 5-2 Missouri Valley) entered the final three games needing just one win to clinch a playoff berth. But losses to Northern Iowa (on a last-second field goal) and North Dakota State (with starting quarterback Kurt Hess sidelined with a high ankle sprain) have complicated things.
Fortunately for YSU, Hess is expected to play after missing all but three series against the Bison. YSU coach Eric Wolford said Hess felt better on Sunday than he did all of last week.
“Kurt is good to go,” Wolford said. “He feels great, so that’s a good thing.”
If he can’t, redshirt freshman Tanner Garry would likely play, with redshirt freshman Nick Wargo as the third-stringer. Sophomore backup Dante Nania is doubtful with a separated shoulder he suffered against NDSU.
In the last 28 years, 53 MVFC teams have won eight or more regular season games and all but five made the playoffs: UNI (in 1989 and 1999), WIU (in 1994) and YSU (in 2001 and 2005).
All of those came under the 16-team playoff format. The FCS field has since been expanded to 24.
So, while a loss wouldn’t necessarily end YSU’s playoff chances — it would still be an eight-win team from the nation’s best conference — the Penguins don’t want a three-game losing streak on their resume.
“This is a huge game; this is bigger than last week,” senior linebacker Dom Rich said. “It’s a must-win.”
Added Peterman: “This is what college football players should live for right here. This is one of those games where you go in the backyard with your brothers where it’s the last second, last play, you’ve got to get it. This is that game. This is one of those magnitude-type games.”
South Dakota State (7-4, 4-3 MVFC) was picked to finish second in the conference in the preseason but after winning three straight games, it lost four of the next five, including three conference games.
The Jackrabbits have since won three straight, including an overtime victory over UNI two weeks ago. They’ve also historically played well against YSU, leading the all-time series 9-5 with five straight wins.
Last year’s victory was one of the most decisive in the series, with the Jackrabbits rolling up a 41-7 lead early in the third quarter en route to a 41-28 victory.
“Since I’ve been here, we haven’t beat them, so that’s kind of fuel for the fire,” said Rich, a redshirt senior who joined the program in 2009. “We’re gonna go out with a chip on our shoulders.”
YSU hasn’t made the playoffs since 2006 and after near-misses the past two years, the Penguins adopted the motto: “Let there be no doubt.”
The only way to do that is to win Saturday.
“It’s something that we all want, something that we aspire to have,” Wolford said. “[But] you can’t get caught up in Saturday right now. It’s about today’s preparation and what we do.”