YOUNGSTOWN - Youngstown State coach Eric Wolford has seen enough of the Duquesne University football team during the past few years to notice its program is on the rise, but his view didn't just come from the football field.
"We've recruited some of the same guys in the past, whether it be in western Pennsylvania or they're getting some more guys in Ohio now," Wolford said. "So, I see them probably a little bit more than I have in the past."
The fact that Duquesne nearly upset Buffalo, an FBS school, last Saturday also should help keep Wolford's Penguins grounded after they almost upended Illinois. Both YSU and the Dukes held a lead in the fourth quarter before succumbing to late rallies.
Wolford hopes those warning signs diminish any thought that the Dukes, who tied for the Northeast Conference title in 2013, are a substandard FCS team.
"I don't view them as a lower-level team in any way," Wolford said. "They have scholarships too. I'm sure they have creative ways of working grants and aids. They have 30-plus scholarships, and obviously that didn't matter against Buffalo. They're a very good football team."
Duquesne returns 16 starters from a year ago, when it finished 7-4. Despite tying for the conference title with Sacred Heart, the Pioneers received the automatic bid to the FCS playoffs because they won the head-to-head matchup with Duquesne. Once a non-scholarship school, the Dukes now offer 35 after the NEC adopted an athletics-based aid system for competing schools in 2006.
Wolford recognizes the difference - on and off the field.
"They're a hard team to recruit against in the fact that they have that college-type atmosphere at Duquesne," he said. "They have their own little area in Pittsburgh that kids are able to go out and have a social life in, so for some kids, it's attractive. And it's obviously a good school academically. So, I see them definitely investing in their program."
One person who has first-hand knowledge of the Dukes' talent is YSU starting middle linebacker Jaylin Kelly. The sophomore is from Washington, Pa. (just south of Pittsburgh) and played against a handful of players on Duquesne's team, including up-and-coming sophomore quarterback Dillon Buechel. He threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns on 18 of 37 passing against Buffalo, which led 21-0 but had to rally after the Dukes went ahead 28-24 in the fourth quarter.
Numbers like that are another reason the Penguins insist they aren't overlooking Duquesne.
"I know they have athletes and a real good quarterback," said Kelly, a Class AA all-state selection as a senior at Washington High School. "We're going to prepare for a team hard no matter who the (team) is. It doesn't matter who they played."
Those preparations began Monday when Wolford said YSU corrected its mistakes from a 28-17 loss to Illinois in which the Penguins led, 17-14, with a little more than 9 minutes remaining. Two major errors came on special teams. The first was a 67-yard kick return that led to a touchdown, and the second was the now-infamous "butt punt" in which punter Joey Cejudo punted the ball into the backside of blocker Jacob Wood. The gaffe has spread all over the internet, and the Penguins had a little light-hearted fun with their kicker, who was named Missouri Valley Football Conference Special Teams Player of the Week after also making three field goals against the Illini.
"We joked him a little bit about it," YSU senior wide receiver Jelani Berassa said, "but it was a negative play, so the jokes came later."
The Penguins insist their preparations for Duquesne are no laughing matter.