By JOHN HARRIS
Call them Bo’s Believers.
Youngstown State football players Jody Webb, Justin Spencer and Jameel Smith walk the walk and talk the talk set forth by their leader, second-year coach Bo Pelini.
“It’s a mix of everybody starting to finally get it,” said Spencer, a junior tackle. “Like Coach Bo says, we’re starting to peak at the right time.”
Added Webb, a senior running back: “Like Coach Bo says, it’s not about them, it’s about us. It’s about trusting one another.”
More importantly, Smith said the Penguins trust their coach.
“Each week, Coach Bo tells the team as long as we do our job and handle us, we’ll be all right,” said Smith, a senior safety.
The three veteran starters personally experienced the Penguins’ impressive transformation from a team that finished 5-6 a year ago to this year’s 9-3 edition that believes anything is possible, even on the road against No. 3 seed Jacksonville State in Saturday’s 2 p.m. FCS second-round matchup.
“Since our last game last season, it’s been, ‘We need to put in the work to get where we want to be,’ and that’s in a tournament possibly winning the national championship,” said Webb, who is second on the team with 847 rushing yards.
“All the work we’ve put in to this point, it’s been to achieve our goals.”
The Penguins won their first playoff game in 10 years, upending Samford last week at Stambaugh Stadium.
They’re exuding major confidence in preparation for Jacksonville State (10-1), which carries a 14-game home winning streak and lost to North Dakota State in the 2015 FCS national championship game.
“We’re looking forward to this test,” said Smith, who’s second on the team with 68 tackles.
“There’s been rumors going around. Everybody [saying], ‘Ya’ll beat Samford [but] lose next week.’ We took that personally.”
Said Spencer: “When all the guys committed to play here, we didn’t do it to play however many [regular] season games we play and be done. We all want more. We all want the national championship.”
The players all agree they needed to work overtime to achieve individual success and attain lofty team goals. They also agree much of the credit belongs to Pelini, who encouraged them to think big.
“Since I’ve been here, everybody’s talking about those 90’s teams,” said Smith of the Penguins winning national championships in ‘91, ‘93, ‘94 and ‘97 under Jim Tressel, now YSUs president. “Big shout out to those teams, but we’re trying to bring that back to Youngstown.”
Told of his players’ verbal pledges to excellence this week, Pelini acknowledged that his message has made a difference.
“I talk about developing a culture, how to go about your business. I’m pretty consistent in my approach and what I believe equates with giving you a chance. Over the years, the teams I’ve been around have been pretty consistent,” said Pelini, whose 81-36 career record includes seven full seasons at Nebraska.
“You get to this point in the year, playing in this conference [Missouri Valley] you’re pretty much battle tested,” Pelini continued.
“They’re not going to be surprised by the environment. You have to be mentally tough enough, focused enough and disciplined enough to do your job. That’s always our message. It comes down to execution, effort and being accountable to the other 10 guys on the field every single snap.”