By Joe Scalzo
One of Chris Sammarone’s favorite memories of playing for Youngstown State in the early 1990s was meeting with his team at DeBartolo Hall on the Sunday after the regular season ended to see who — and where — the Penguins were playing in the playoffs.
“There couldn’t be a more fun time in this area,” said Sammarone, a YSU Hall of Fame center who played in three straight I-AA national title games from 1992-94. “We’d get 200-300 people on a Sunday afternoon during NFL games to come up and sit for an hour-and-a-half to hear some guy talk about the I-AA playoffs.”
With a win today against South Dakota State, the Penguins (8-3, 5-2 Missouri Valley Conference) can wake up Sunday morning feeling the same way.
With a loss, they run the risk of ending up like they did the last two years — hoping the playoff committee can overlook a flawed resume.
“[YSU quarterback] Kurt Hess said it best — I think we’ve got to win,” said Sammarone, now YSU’s radio analyst. “We don’t deserve to be in the playoffs if we don’t win this game.
“Coach [Eric] Wolford has preached all year long ‘let there be no doubt.’ Well, the only way to do that is to win [today].”
After starting the season 8-1, YSU’s playoff dreams have hit a snag the past two weeks with losses at Northern Iowa (on a last-second field goal) and to North Dakota State.
Another loss would give the Penguins a season-ending three-game losing streak, which isn’t exactly the best resume to put in front of a playoff committee.
“The winner has a pretty good shot of getting in and whoever loses runs the risk of going to a committee and you don’t know how that’s going to play out,” Wolford said.
Hess missed most of the NDSU game with a high ankle sprain but is expected to play today. Backup Tanner Garry took most of the practice reps on Monday and Tuesday, but they split everything 50-50 on Wednesday and Hess took every rep on Thursday. (There was no practice on Friday, although the team watched film and did a walk-through.)
Hess’ backup last week, Dante Nania, is likely out with a separated shoulder and junior cornerback Julius Childs (elbow) also is doubtful. Childs has started 10 of 11 games this season after starting all 11 games last season.
After a midseason swoon, South Dakota State (7-4, 4-3) has won three straight to revive its playoff hopes.
But a loss would drop the Jackrabbits into a tie for fourth or fifth in the league standings, depending on how Southern Illinois fares against Indiana State.
“We want to try to determine our destiny rather than leave it ... to the committee,” said Jackrabbits coach John Stielgelmeier, whose team earned an at-large bid last season and lost to NDSU in the second round. “My observation of that is there’s a lot of subjectivity [in choosing teams] and there has to be because there’s a mind-numbing number of good teams in the nation.”
Eleven of the 24 FCS playoff spots go to conference champions, which leaves 13 at-large spots. Entering Saturday’s action, there were 21 playoff-eligible teams with three or four losses.
Of the 53 MVFC teams to win eight games in the past 28 seasons, only five have missed the playoffs, and all of those came under the 16-team format.
“Those [playoff scenarios] are things you can waste a lot of time thinking about and worrying about,” Wolford said. “We talk about preparation and handling things we control.”
The biggest thing the Penguins can control is today’s outcome.
Win, and they’ll have a date with DeBartolo Hall, secure in the knowledge they won’t get stood up.