Ed Puskas: Bo helps put YSU back on the map

Just for the record, I’ll never get used to calling it the Football Championship Subdivision.

OK, FCS rolls off the tongue a lot easier, but to old-timers — and I’m staring at 50 this year so I probably qualify — it will always be Division I-AA.

Or just I-AA.

A lot has changed in the 19 years since Youngstown State last ruled FCS or I-AA or whatever you want to call it. The Penguins were last champions after beating McNeese State 10-9 on Dec. 20, 1997 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

YSU played for another title in 1999, but ran into a dominant Georgia Southern team.

The Penguins returned to the playoffs in 2000, but lost in a monsoon at Richmond. No one knew at the time that it was Jim Tressel’s final game as YSU’s head coach.

A few weeks later, he was introduced as John Cooper’s replacement at Ohio State.

West Branch’s Jon Heacock replaced Tressel and the Penguins finished 8-3 in 2001, but didn’t get into the playoffs after letting a win slip away at Marshall. Heacock eventually got YSU to the national semifinals in 2006, but stepped down after nine seasons.

Ursuline’s Eric Wolford orchestrated what had to be one of the biggest roster turnovers in the program’s history over the next couple of seasons, but was unable to get the Penguins back to the playoffs and was fired after five seasons.

All that — and Nebraska souring on Bo Pelini — led us to today. YSU’s third consecutive head coach who grew up in the Valley turned out to be the one who really clicked.

Pelini, under-appreciated and underrated with the Cornhuskers, has done the best coaching job in FCS — and maybe at any level — this season.

Admit it: You didn’t see this coming in October, when the Penguins were struggling to score points. Or on Nov. 5, when they couldn’t even manage a touchdown on the road against North Dakota State in a 24-3 loss.

But something changed. You can point to the return of Hunter Wells as the starting quarterback. Wells had been in limbo since preseason camp and wasn’t even really on YSU’s radar when the season began. Most people — even Wells himself — wondered if he’d ever play a down for the Penguins again.

But injuries and an anemic offense created a second chance and Wells has made the most of it. Of course, he has had help from his teammates — especially running back Jody Webb — and Pelini and offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery.

This is not even close to the same offense we saw for much of the season.

Pelini was asked about the turnaround by this YSU team during a news conference in Frisco, Texas on Friday.

“Well, we tweaked some things offensively from the North Dakota State game on,” he said. “Made some subtle changes I think that have helped us. I think that’s enabled us to become more balanced, really allow our guys to play faster, more physical. I think that you look every week and at that point in the season we looked at what we were doing and said, ‘How can we do some things better?

“I think the changes that we’ve made, although subtle, adding to what we were doing before, has really helped us. That’s the key. I’ve kind of talked about it all year long. You have to keep looking at it from a coaching standpoint and find out what you do good, what you don’t do quite as good, and make changes and improvements as the year goes on. That enables you to finish strong.”

That was a hallmark of the 1990s YSU teams. Tressel’s mantra — “November is for contenders” — helped fuel those teams.

In the years since, YSU entered November in control of its destiny more than a few times. But aside from Heacock’s 2006 team, the modern Penguins weren’t able to duplicate that 1990s magic. That special combination of a dominant offensive line and running game, heady QB play, and a hard-hitting defense and strong special teams seemed lost.

Well, it’s back.

Some things are different because nothing stays the same after 19 years, but the formula is much the same.

The other ingredient — excellent coaching — is also a big part of the mix. But it’s a little different, because Pelini is not Tressel.

I remember watching the latter on the sideline at Villanova in 1997 and thinking he was the calm in the eye of the hurricane as YSU battled back from a three-TD deficit.

Pelini is more like the hurricane, but that’s OK. It works and his players love him. Anyone who watched the coaching job he did with this team and isn’t willing or able to give him some credit is either a still-bitter Nebraska fan or is just clueless.

Win or lose today against James Madison, YSU football is back on the map. It just took a little while.

Write Vindicator Sports Editor Ed Puskas at epuskas@vindy.com and follow him on Twitter, @EdPuskas_Vindy.

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