There has never been a better time for the Youngstown State University football team to reach the postseason, but it's only going to happen if something changes.
The Football Championship Subdivision playoffs will expand from 20 to 24 teams this year, and the field will be without perennial powerhouses Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, which are ineligible because they're moving up to the Football Bowl Subdivision next year.
The Penguins boast one of their most talented and experienced teams in years, and they possess one of the better quarterbacks in the FCS in Kurt Hess. At Thursday's media day, every player went on record as saying it's playoffs or bust in 2013. It will be a bust if this team can't keep its focus.
A weak mental approach is what cost YSU in years past. The Penguins followed up monumental wins with devastating losses to mediocre teams. That's been a constant trend during the last three years, and the players know it. In fact, they admitted it.
"Last year we started 4-0 and we started worrying about what lies ahead and got sidetracked, and we were not prepared for that next week," said Hess, a fifth-year senior who is on pace to set nearly every relevant passing record at YSU.
One record he won't attain is the most important: career victories. That's nothing against Hess, whose physical skills are as good as any quarterback who has come through YSU, but the Penguins' 16-17 record during his three years is a telling statistic. A quarterback who wasn't nearly as physically gifted, Tom Zetts, ended his career with a 30-17 career record - tied for second best all time.
I remember talking to Zetts during a controversial time in 2007, his senior year. The Penguins were coming off their first - and only - playoff appearance since the departure of Jim Tressel, as Zetts guided YSU to a national semifinal in 2006. The following year, the Penguins were again poised for a playoff run, but a 24-17 loss to Southern Illinois midway through the season frustrated Zetts, who said certain players weren't spending enough time with their mental approach - watching film, taking care of their bodies, carrying out the game plan, etc. That type of preparation is what made YSU so successful during Zetts' time as quarterback, and it's what will make or break the season for the current Penguins.
The coach who was brought in to return YSU to national prominence is aware of this, and he hopes the Penguins are ready to make a change.
"Last year, we still had some selfishness," said YSU coach Eric Wolford when asked why the Penguins faltered down the stretch last year. "Some guys were maybe too worried about themselves as opposed to the big picture and the team."
That will be the demise of YSU if it continues in 2013. It's easy blame Wolford for the Penguins inconsistent play during his first three years. He is the head coach and is ultimately responsible for the results on the field, but the players have to start accepting some of the blame. Dom Rich did that on Thursday.
"I think we didn't have everybody all in," said Rich, a captain last year, about the 2012 team. "Not everybody bought into the system, and we got high on ourselves. We started looking into the playoffs before we played those teams that beat us. I can assure you that's not going to happen this year. We learned our lesson, and we're coming ready to work. We're taking it one game at a time this year."
That mindset is easier said than done - especially after a few big victories. Kids want to celebrate. They want to party with other students and tell them how great they did. They want to watch highlights, not their next opponent. Veterans like Hess and Rich are the ones who have to police such activity, not just Wolford, and any parent or coach can tell you it's difficult to keep 20-something-year-old kids under control. As fellow students - and excited kids - the veterans who are around the team when these situations arise are going to have to temper their emotions.
The maturity of this team will be tested at some point this year, and the leadership and self discipline of the Penguins will determine what happens next.