Youngstown State misses FCS playoffs following three-game losing streak
By Joe Scalzo
Despite losing his last three games, Youngstown State football coach Eric Wolford believed the Penguins deserved to be in the playoffs.
The FCS selection committee disagreed. Again.
For the third straight year, YSU fell a game short of making the postseason as the committee selected just one at-large team from the nation’s top-ranked conference: South Dakota State, which defeated YSU 42-13 on Saturday.
Missouri Valley champion North Dakota State, the two-time defending FCS champions, earned the league’s automatic bid and the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed.
“We play in a really damn good conference,” said Wolford, who said he was just as frustrated with the committee’s decision this year as he was the past two years. “At the end of the day, we weren’t as good as North Dakota State and South Dakota State. OK. But we were third in the best conference and we don’t get in.
“It’s a little bit hard to fathom but that’s the way it is.”
Wolford believed the Penguins should have gotten in over teams such as Tennessee State (9-3), Southern Utah (8-4), Sam Houston State (8-4) and South Carolina State (9-3) — teams with similar records from lower-ranked conferences.
But YSU wasn’t even close to making the playoffs, with the committee revealing that the next three spots would have gone to Tennessee Chattanooga, William & Mary and Lehigh. Chairman Jeff Bourne said the committee favored teams that fared well in conference games and had momentum late in the season.
YSU’s final three losses were to MVFC teams, including the final two at home.
Wolford said he met with the team at 11:30 a.m. Sunday when the selections were announced, then met afterward with each senior one-on-one.
“The team was pretty down,” Wolford said. “Football is important to these guys and they do want to please themselves, but they want to please the community and the fans and they feel like they let them down.
“I just tried to give the seniors a feeling of accomplishment. Around here, as you know, [success] is really gauged on one thing.”
No one knows that better than Wolford, who has gone just 24-21 in four seasons — the exact same record at this point as his predecessor, Jon Heacock. Wolford is just 14-18 in MVFC games, compared to a 13-15 record for Heacock through four seasons.
Wolford signed a five-year contract in 2010 and will enter his final season next year, although YSU athletic director Ron Strollo could sign Wolford to an extension. (Strollo did not respond to interview requests on Saturday or Sunday.) Wolford said he plans to be back and believes the program is headed in the right direction, even if some fans disagree.
“We’ve got great fans,” he said. “They’re obviously passionate, just like me. They get upset. You know what? They’re entitled to be upset. No one is more upset than me.
“At the same time, I don’t have any doubt that we’re doing things the right way. We went from being probably a middle-of-the-road conference team or lower and we’ve worked our way up to the upper echelon. We’ve just got to focus on finding ways to beat those two schools, North Dakota State and South Dakota State.”
Wolford said the biggest difference between YSU and those teams is at the line of scrimmage.
“After evaluating it, and watching the tape [of the SDSU game] again this morning, I think we’re still a step off at the line of scrimmage,” he said. “And I’m talking about both sides of the ball. The other teams [in the MVFC] that we play are decent teams and we match up very favorably, but when we play those two, we’re not matching up there right now.
“I think we can get there with a little bit more development. That’s the next step. Across the board, I’m not saying our kids aren’t good, but we’ve got to get better if we want to beat one of those teams. And right now, you’ve almost got to beat one of those two to get into the playoffs.”
The Penguins already have 11 verbal commitments in their 2014 recruiting class — the most at this point under Wolford — but will have to replace a 16-member senior class that featured a dozen starters, including quarterback Kurt Hess.
“Our recruiting has probably been the best we’ve had as far as guys being committed,” he said. “Every year we try to sign someone better than what we have. I’m trying to sign a guy better than [standout freshman RB] Martin Ruiz. And I’m trying to sign a guy better than [redshirted freshman QB] Ricky Davis. And the same thing across the board. Then we have to get them into the weight room and develop them so we can continue to improve.”