YOUNGSTOWN - With playoffs in the horizon on Nov. 19, Youngstown State took a 27-10 lead at Stambaugh Stadium into halftime against Missouri State, who had one win going into the game, before being outscored 28-7 and losing 38-34.
YSU coach Eric Wolford said it was the best thing that happened last year.
"My feeling is this: if we would have won that game, we probably would have got into the playoffs," Wolford said. "In the playoffs, because of our momentum, we probably would have won a couple games. This year, they would have felt entitled to be back there. This team is much more hungry than that team would have been if we had good fortune last year."
Third-year starting quarterback Kurt Hess said that running back Jamaine Cook and him uses that game as motivation.
"Even though we would like to forget it, it still burns in our hearts," Hess said. "It's really motivated us throughout the season."
The Penguins have not made the playoffs since 2006, and Wolford knows that there will always be high expectations in Youngstown.
"When things where going bad here, we went through a tremendous transition, and it was difficult for everyone," he said. "I felt strongly that that had to take place."
Players and coaches visited the Watson and Tressel Training Site on Thursday, getting better acquainted with one another, before heading off to training camp as the 2012 campaign begins to unfold.
"It's obviously a new year," Wolford said. "There's a lot of noise out there right now as far as expectations and all those kind of things. We're going to embrace the present, and we know that we have a good football team."
High expectations loom the offense, which broke numerous school records last season. The Penguins scored 398 points, rushed for 2,542 yards, passed for 2,503 yards (combined 5,045 yards) and collected 264 first downs while the list goes on and on.
"Offensively, we know what our starters can do, so right now we're really working on the younger guys," Cook said. "I think offensively we can come in and produce more than what we did last year."
Cook was a first-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference selection and first-team all-league last season. He rushed for 1,386 yards on 271 carries and scored 13 touchdowns.
Entering his final season, Cook is also helping the running backs of the future, including former Harding tailback Demond Hymes. Redshirted last season, Hymes said he's fortunate to learn from Cook.
"I'm still glad me and him can be teammates," Hymes said. "It was good that I did get redshirted because there were some things that I needed to learn."
Right next to Cook was Hess, who was also honored with a first-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference selection as well as finishing third in the MVFC's Offensive Player of the Year. He threw for 2,468 yards and a school-record 26 touchdowns a season ago.
"I think that's one of the things we expect is to come out as a better offense," Hess said. "A lot of people have categorized us as great statistically and in the record books, but we see a lot more potential in ourselves. Everybody has recognized that they can be better."
On the flip side, the defense is expected to have a better season under new defensive coordinator Joe Tresey. The Penguins allowed 283 points, 3,875 yards and 39 touchdowns while Tresey was at UCLA.
He said it's difficult to tell what the defense will be like until the season opener at Pittsburgh on Sept. 1.
"It's when you play the unknowns you're going to find out what kind of players you have," Tresey said. "I think the big thing is it's not how we start but how we finish. We've got to start strong of course, but we've really got to finish with furry."
Tresey added that a key element is the depth.
"You've got to have 22 that can play," he said. "We need to be two deep, so we got to find 22 players that can play."
Another position that the Penguins are focused on is the special teams. YSU allowed 1,773 yards combined from kickoffs and punts, and they were also 5-7 on field goals and 34-39 on PATs.
Kicker Nick Liste, originally from Niles, said the team knows about the statistics.
"That's one of the main things we're going to be really focusing on this year," he said. "We actually just had a meeting about it earlier, so everybody will be focused and ready to go."
No matter what the numbers show by the end of this season, many players not only expect to be in the playoffs, but also to win a national championship. Wolford did not disagree.
"You'll hear some coaches about winning seasons or winning six games to get to a bowl game," he said. "That's not our standard. Our standard is to be in the playoffs and win championships. That will never change."