By Joe Scalzo
If you took a sip of coffee every time a Youngstown State player or coach said “We’ve got to get better every day” or “We’ve got to take it one game at a time” during this year’s Tuesday press conferences, your caffeine buzz wouldn’t wear off until sometime around Saturday’s kickoff.
(Note: Do not try this at home, particularly if you choose to replace coffee with a more adult beverage.)
The Penguins repeated those two phrases over and over last year, too (and the year before that, and the year before that), with one key difference. Unlike last year, when YSU peaked in Week 4, the Penguins do seem to be getting better this fall.
“Every team in the country is going to say their goal is to get better,” senior defensive end Kyle Sirl said. “But in the locker room, we can just feel something’s different. I think we’re really focused on improving every day. We’re tired of people saying it’s the same old, same old. We just really want to prove everybody wrong.”
YSU (6-1, 3-0 Missouri Valley) opened with a surprisingly difficult 28-10 win over Dayton, then got routed by Michigan State, 55-17, in Week 3. But the Penguins grew up in a Week 5 win over Southern Illinois, rallying from a 13-point fourth quarter deficit to win 28-27. That win looks even better in hindsight considering the Salukis have beaten South Dakota State and Northern Iowa over the past two weeks.
“That gives us a lot of confidence,” said senior tackle Andrew Sinko, who was named YSU’s offensive lineman of the week after Saturday’s 59-17 win over Illinois State, the Penguins’ second straight double-digit win. “They were a good football team. Their defense was real physical. It shows how mature we were to go down by  points and escape out of there with a win.”
After going winless last October, the Penguins have a chance to finish the month undefeated on Saturday against Western Illinois. (YSU has an open date on Oct. 26.)
While the biggest difference between this year and last year is the schedule — YSU played four of the league’s five best teams last October, whereas this year’s October schedule is much easier — YSU coach Eric Wolford said this year’s team has better chemistry.
“We’ve got a tight-knit group, a real brotherhood, a real family,” he said. “We went through some ups and downs here and we’re self-motivated. These kids want to play hard. They want to have success.
“They’ve invested. I think when you put a lot into your trade or your work or your business or whatever you do, you’re willing to lay it on the line.”
Neither the Leathernecks (3-4), nor YSU’s next opponent, South Dakota (3-3), are in the Missouri Valley’s top tier, which means the Penguins have three more weeks to get better before facing a season-ending gauntlet.
If they do, maybe people will stop asking “Would 8-4 be good enough to make the playoffs?” and start asking “Is this team capable of winning a title?”
“We need to just take it one day at a time, not taking anything for granted and realizing how close we really were last year,” Sirl said. “How we felt at the end of the year, it was one of the worst feelings I ever felt, realizing we were just one game out [of the playoffs].”