YOUNGSTOWN - Jamaine Cook remembers his first carry as a Youngstown State Penguin like it was yesterday. It was against the University of Pittsburgh in 2009. It was for 2 yards.
Now the senior featured back for the Penguins, Cook is looking to have a lot more than 2 yards when he steps onto Heinz Field tonight against the Panthers in the season opener. Game time is 6 p.m.
"I got my first college carry (against Pitt in '09), one carry for 2 yards," Cook said. "I played a lot of special teams and I also remember those older guys then, like Donald Jones, just wanting to show that they can play with the best competition out there. And so, I kind of take that into my senior season. Wanting to prove that YSU, we can play against anybody."
If the Penguins want to prove they can play against anyone - specifically FBS schools - they will have to erase the memory of the game back in 2009. That game didn't end well for the Penguins, who lost 38-3.
Since that year, the Penguins are a new squad with a new coach. The 2009 season was Jon Heacock's final year running the Penguins and junior quarterback Kurt Hess was watching the game from the sidelines as a redshirt freshman.
Since Eric Wolford took over YSU in 2010, the program has made a turnaround - nearly missing the playoffs in 2011 with a 6-5 record. Hess has become one of the best quarterbacks in the FCS as he is on the Walter Payton Watch List and was named a preseason All-MVFC first-team selection. And Cook has went from 2 yards in a game to averaging 126 yards per game.
"I think the big thing for us is that we have to believe in each other," Hess said. "Coach Wolford has preached the last two years that we can compete with these guys, from a talent standpoint and a coaching standpoint. I think this year we need to go out there and believe in ourselves and believe in our teammates and know that the coaching staff has put us in a good position. Go out there, execute to the best of our abilities and see what happens."
For the Penguins to pull out something they haven't done since 2001 - which is to beat a FBS school - it will take a complete, four-quarter ball game, something the Penguins worked on all preseason.
"I think the biggest thing we have done is address our weaknesses," Hess said. "The fourth quarter hasn't really been a strong suit of ours. We have made a lot of mental mistakes and a lot of physical mistakes during those games. We really wanted to address those weaknesses late in the game. When it's crunch time and when somebody needs to step up and make a play we are going to bond together and attack the fourth quarter, and attack the whole game and not just play a half."
Both Cook and Hess said preparing for Pitt has been tough - as the Panthers are now under the leadership of Paul Chryst. The first-year coach has spent the last six seasons as the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin. Chryst is the offensive mind that featured Russell Wilson - now with the Seattle Seahawks - and Montee Ball.
"He was at Wisconsin when I was at Illinois and I used to watch coach Chryst film even when we didn't play him, because I think he's a great offensive mind," Wolford said. "It's well documented how well his offenses have performed in the past. I expect them to be creative and utilize your best 11 on the field."
Though the Panthers have been hard to game plan for, and though the Penguins have struggled against FBS opponents, there is a feeling in the air around Youngstown State that this could be the year things turn around. If that were to happen, it starts tonight against the Panthers.
"I do believe that we can win," Hess said. "I think that's some attitude and some mindset that our team needs to have every week and every game."