Long time coming: YSU excited for Bison

Penguins play first football game in 15 months on Sunday

YOUNGSTOWN — A real football game is almost here for Youngstown State University.

It will be almost exactly one year and three months since the last time the Penguins played a meaningful game when they line up against reigning FCS National Champion North Dakota State University at 3:30 p.m. Sunday in Fargo, North Dakota.

“It feels incredible,” said YSU linebacker Griffin Hoak about finally playing football again. “It’s like waking up on Christmas morning every day — being able to run out on the field and tackle some people. It’s been I don’t even know how many months, but it’s been way too long. The team is having fun.”

Playing the role of Scrooge is the most dominant program in FCS history.

The Bison have won an FCS-record 38 consecutive games and eight of the last nine FCS National Championships. YSU seemingly caught a break when NDSU’s Trey Lance decided to skip the season to focus on the NFL Draft.

As a freshman quarterback, Lance won the Walter Payton Award, given to the top player at the FCS level.

Stepping in for Lance is Iowa State-transfer Zeb Noland. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound senior only has limited playing time at North Dakota State, but he did earn a few starts with the Cyclones. YSU coach Doug Phillips and his staff have a little familiarity with Noland. Phillips and defensive coordinator Joe Schaefer were assistant coaches at ISU when Noland was a redshirt freshman.

“You know you’ve got a competitor — a fierce competitor,” Phillips said of Noland. “His dad is a high school coach. And he can zing the ball. He’s got a strong arm, we know that. But it’s going to be base. The one thing about North Dakota State is they’re probably not changing too much because they’ve had so much great success with what they’ve had, and I think Zeb will fit perfectly (into that).”

Much of the Penguins’ preparation has been centered around chemistry.

Of course, they’re installing a gameplan and studying any tendencies they can recognize from watching film, but since the day Phillips took over, he has made it clear that his focus is more about creating a brotherhood within the team than anything else.

Hoak said Phillips recently quizzed the entire team about their teammates, something Phillips admitted he learned from former YSU coach Jim Tressel.

“(Coach) passed out packets, and on the packets were fill-in-the-blanks for each player,” Hoak said. “You had to fill in their high school, their hometown and one word they bring to the team because everyone shared a word with the team, and then he graded each position group on how many they got right. He’s been doing a great job trying to bring this team together as brothers.”

Creating unity wasn’t easy.

The Penguins are vastly different from the last time they stepped on the field in November of 2019. Only 25 players on the current roster have any game experience from that season. The offense is completely revamped, with one returning starter and a two-quarterback system in which Phillips said both freshman Mark Waid and junior Joe Craycraft will play. The defense has three regular starters back along with several new faces.

In all, six redshirt freshmen are slated to start and 11 underclassmen. This all takes place in the Fargodome, one of the loudest venues in the nation, even if only 9,500 fans are allowed (half capacity) because of the pandemic.

“The No. 1-thing is focus,” said Phillips of what he has emphasized for the NDSU matchup. “I’ve got a lot of young guys on this football team. I have young guys that have never been on an airplane, young guys that have never been on a road trip. So, (we’re) going in and trying to teach them what ‘road focus’ is, what we need to do to prepare for a football game on Sunday. That’s been first and foremost.

“Then you’ve got to play smart and keep it clean — try to eliminate any and all pre-snap penalties, substitution errors,” he added. “We have to do this when it’s going to be chaos because it’s going to be loud, so we tried to put our players in those situations the past week, where we tried to create a little chaos, even for our coaches. This will be the first time as a staff we’ve coached together in a football game, so we tried to create chaos for them.

“The final piece is we have to stay together. I want to see how they handle the highs and lows of a college football game.”

It will be a unique experience on many levels.

As Phillips said, it’s a new coaching staff and mostly a new team. It’s February football on a Sunday against the elite team in the FCS. The challenges are aplenty, but that’s nothing new for players who have gone through so much over the last 15 months.

The task at hand may be daunting, but Sunday also means it’s finally time to play some football.

“When the fall (season) got canceled last minute, it’s like, ‘When are we ever going to be able to play with this coaching staff?,’ ” said senior wide receiver Jake Coates, a John F. Kennedy graduate. “Here we are, five days away from Game 1. It’s different, for sure. It’s a different feeling. It’s 5 degrees outside, but we’ve adjusted to it well. We’re excited to finally go against someone different than our offense and our defense.”


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