As each year passes, more and more people ask the same question: Will Youngstown State ever return to the perennial powerhouse it was in the 1990s?
Legendary coach Jim Tressel used a dominant defense, sound special teams and a ball-control offense to build the Penguins into an annual contender, but that blueprint has yet to be duplicated.
Coach Eric Wolford was brought in four years ago to return YSU to prominence, and while it's taken longer than some would have liked, he seems to be on the right path.
The Penguins (7-1, 4-0 Missouri Valley Conference) are off to their best start since 2006 - their last postseason appearance and their only one since Tressel left in 2001. The recipe for success has changed a bit, as YSU boasts a high-scoring offense, a solid defense and, again, great special teams.
The Penguins will soon find out if it's the right model for a winner. The toughest portion of the MVC?schedule remains, including a home matchup against No. 1-ranked and back-to-back national champion North Dakota State.
To dethrone the unbeaten Bison, YSU must show improvement in a number of areas. Here's a look at how each position has fared up to this point and where the most progress is needed.
YSU - The offense will live and die by Kurt Hess. The Penguins have lived lavishly for most of the year. Hess has guided the most potent offense in the Missouri Valley Conference - arguably the top league in the FCS. He went six straight games and a 157 pass attempts between interceptions (two in Week 1 and one in Week 8). He's connected on 114 of 189 passes (60.3 percent) for 1,548 yards, 17 touchdowns and three interceptions. He's only had one slip-up since a Week 1 dud of a performance against Dayton, and that came in the pouring down rain against Western?Illinois. He possess a strong arm, good leadership skills and the intelligence to finish the year as one of the top quarterbacks in the FCS. His consistency, which has been iffy in the past, can't falter down the stretch - when he must be at his best - if the Penguins are to make the playoffs and have a chance at a title.
GRADE - A-
YSU - The emergence of true freshman running back Martin Ruiz has been rather amazing. He was fourth on the depth chart coming into the season, but Ruiz took advantage after a few injuries and a lack of production by others. He doesn't "wow" people with ridiculous speed or jaw-dropping moves, but all parts of his game are rock solid. He can run between the tackles, on the edge or make plays as a receiver out of the backfield. He possesses deceptive speed and is rarely caught from behind. He leads YSU and is third in the MVC with 775 yards in eight games (three starts). His 12 touchdowns are second best in the conference. There's depth at this position as well. Warren?G. Harding-product Demond Hymes, who would have began the season as the starter if not for an ankle injury, is back to 100 percent. Sophomore Jody Webb, a transfer from?Toledo, possesses great quickness in and out of cuts. Senior Torrian Pace is a great mentor for all three and is a bruising runner at 5-foot-11, 225 pounds.
GRADE - A
YSU - The receiving corps was viewed as a major strength entering the year, but it's taken time for a young-and-talented group to get on the same page as Hess. An injury to starter Michael Wheary didn't help the progress, but it did allow vastly talented players like sophomores Marcel Caver (6-3, 185) and Andrew Williams (6-4, 185), who are blossoming into downfield threats for the Penguins. Fellow sophomore Andre Stubbs is quietly having a solid season as he leads the team in receptions (20) and is tied for first in touchdowns (three). Six different players have two or more touchdowns for YSU, which makes it difficult for teams to prepare for the offense.
GRADE - B
YSU - Once again the offensive line is one of the best in the country. Wolford was lauded as a premier O-line coach before he came to YSU, and he certainly hasn't disappointed. They've allowed league-low eight sacks, and the Penguins also are second in the conference by averaging 224 yards rushing per game. The line did this without one of its best players - left tackle Kyle Bryant - for two games.
GRADE - A
YSU - Not many knew what to expect from the defensive front entering the season, and it's been and up-and-down year for them. They've shown improvement as of late. Senior defensive end Kyle Sirl, the only returning starter, and Austintown Fitch graduate D.J. Moss, also a senior, have provided some consistency. And youngers players have shown progress, especially with sophomore Emmanuel Kromah, who leads the team in quarterback hurries (five) and is tied in sacks (four). Junior Vince Coleman and freshman Derek Rivers are both used mainly in pass-rushing situations and have played well at times. But Sirl is the one who sticks out up front, not just because of his 29 tackles (a team-best 7.5 for loss) and four sacks, but more so for his leadership. He's been a key voice for a team that has kept quiet in its dealings with criticism of always missing out on the playoffs. Thus far, he's said all the right things.
GRADE - C
YSU - It's hard to find anything bad to say about Travis and Teven Williams (no relation), but it's also hard to find a great deal of good to say either. In other words, the middle and weak-side linebackers have made a lot of plays, but they haven't made a lot of great plays. Teven leads YSU and is sixth in the MVC?with 54 tackles, but only two of those have come behind the line of scrimmage. Travis has 41 tackles, but he's made a few more big plays (4.5 TFLs, 2 sacks, one forced fumble that come on a big hit against Illinois State). Senior captain Dom Rich, a strong-side linebacker, suffered an injury to his hip and his return date is unknown. If he is lost for an extended period of time, it will be a noticeable loss to the defense.
GRADE - C
YSU - Injuries and inexperience hurt the secondary early on, but it's starting to come together. Junior strong safety Donald D'Alesio has been the defense's top playmaker - his strip against Southern Illinois sealed a huge come-from-behind victory. He also is third on the team with 46 tackles and has one pick. Freshman safety Jameel Smith has picked things up quicker than expected and shown flashes of being a great player down the road. The return of corner Dale Peterman in the fourth game of the year was obvious as teams have passed away from him and toward Julius Childs. Childs is second on the Penguins with 48 tackles, but part of that is because opponents are constantly throwing his way. The numbers aren't pretty - YSU allows the most pass yardage of any team in the MVC - but they're also deceiving because opponents are passing more because they're behind in games.
GRADE - C
YSU - People might have laughed when Wolford said punter Nick Liste could be the team's MVP to this point of the season, but he's really been that good. He was a borderline NFL?prospect before the year, and the senior out of Niles High School has only improved his stock. His 44-yard average per punt is eighth best in the nation, and while national stats are kept for touchbacks on kickoffs, his 29 are 11 better than the next best player in the MVC. First-year kicker Joey Cejudo is a perfect 5 for 5 on field goals, including a 33-yarder in terrible conditions last week. Also, YSU's coverage of punts and kickoffs, which was terrible in recent years, has improved dramatically.
GRADE - A
The Penguins set themselves up for a great chance at the postseason. They need to win two of their final four games - nine wins might even secure a first-round bye - but they need to beat a premier team to build confidence, and they'll certainly have their chances.