The word "playoffs" wouldn't have come to mind when talking about the Youngstown State football team up until this week.
Sure, the Penguins have been scoring as much as Wilt Chamberlin in the 1960s (and I'm not just talking about basketball). They're 6-1, ranked No. 15 in the nation and on a four-game winning streak. Their defense is improved. They actually won a few road games, and quarterback Kurt Hess is playing out of his mind right now.
But still, with the best teams in the Missouri Valley Conference looming down the stretch, I wasn't yet sold on this being a playoff team.
That didn't happen until I heard senior defensive end Kyle Sirl talk at Tuesday's weekly press conference. Sirl was refreshingly honest - more so than any player or coach has been with the media all year. He answered tough questions without hesitation and spoke candidly about topics that might normally irritate a player.
Players often revert to cliches or what the media call "coach speak" when they're asked a difficult question. They'll say such things as, "We have to focus on ourselves and getting better every day," or "We have to take it one game at a time." There's often a lot of truth to these answers, but it usually doesn't answer the question. Sirl, a senior leader on the defensive line, used some coach speak this past Tuesday, but he then followed it up with what seemed to be a genuine answer.
He finished the first question of the press conference with the old line, "I think we're focused on getting better every week," and a reporter quipped back with, "You guys say that every year, but are you .."
Sirl didn't flinch.
"Every team in the country is going to say their goal is to get better (every week), but you know, in the locker room, we can just feel something's different," he said. "We're really focused on improving every day. We're tired of people saying it's the same old, same old, so we just really want to prove everybody wrong and show that we can get better every week."
The same old Penguins would fall flat on their faces after a hot start. Last year's team went 0-4 after beginning 4-0 and being ranked No. 3 in the nation. They eventually missed the playoffs. I don't think that will happen to this year's team.
Sirl, who made several insightful comments, went on to talk about one subject that really caught my attention. It had to do with continuing to have productive practices and constantly watching and evaluating film. When a team starts to win big (or lose big), those are two areas that often get overlooked by players, who feel such tactics are overblown and they can just show up and play on Saturday and be successful. One of the best quarterbacks in YSU history, Tom Zetts, used to tell me how those two traits will make or break a football team. They made the 2006 team, which was the last group to make the playoffs, and they broke the 2007 Penguins, which missed out on the postseason by one game - like so many other YSU teams over the past 10 years.
Zetts told me during that 2007 season that, after a 4-1 start, he had to constantly get on players about watching film and getting the most out of practices, and he felt that was why they lost a few close games. He added that such badgering never happened in '06, when YSU advanced to the FCS national semifinal game.
I asked Sirl about being a leader on this year's team and making sure the younger players don't get lost in the hype, and this is what he said.
"We don't really get into a mindset of we can relax and not watch as much film because we realize the amount of film (we watch) and our focus in practice is what's getting us these results," he said. "We have an overall team focus that I really don't think I've experienced here in my five years. Policing guys on watching film and doing the little things right is less and less every week. So, that's definitely a plus."
Calling it a plus is putting it lightly. The talent is there for the Penguins to make the playoffs. In fact, there's enough talent for the Penguins to win all five of their remaining games, which includes matchups against No. 1-ranked North Dakota State, No. 13 Northern Iowa and No. 18 South Dakota State.
Before YSU gets there, the Penguins play against some of the worst teams in the conference, today against Western Illinois and in two weeks (they have a bye next week) against South Dakota. If YSU overlooks either one and loses, the defeat would be crippling. If they win both, the Penguins probably only need to win one of their final three games to earn a playoff berth.
There I go, looking ahead again, something YSU can't afford to do.