On a mission

YOUNGSTOWN – Eric Wolford has let it be known he doesn’t talk about national rankings, individual accolades or school records with his players.

And that’s just fine with the Penguins, who are No. 15 in the FCS coaches Poll and have set numerous records thus far into the season (for anyone who IS interested). Such accomplishments aren’t what motivate them.

So, what does?

“The win at the end of the week,” said senior defensive end Kyle Sirl, who was refreshingly candid about the state of the suddenly red-hot Penguins during a press conference on Tuesday. “(The win is) the most important stat, and it should be for any team, but I really think that, team-wise, we really understand that concept this year – that the only thing that matters at the end of the week is the W or the L on Saturday.”

There’s been plenty of Ws as of late as YSU (6-1, 3-0 Missouri Valley Conference) won its fourth straight game with a dominating 59-21 victory over Illinois State last Saturday.

Sirl said the Penguins are doing everything they can to convince the Mahoning Valley that this year’s team is for real and won’t nosedive like 2012. YSU stormed out to a 4-0 start last year and was No. 3 in the country, but a crushing 48-7 defeat to top-ranked North Dakota State led to an 0-4 record in October and kept the Penguins out of the playoffs, a place they’ve visited just once (2006) since Jim Tressel left town.

Sirl believes that’s about to change.

“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.”

Wolford has talked about a more mature group this year throughout the season. “Last year, we still had some selfishness,” Wolford said during a preseason interview. That seems to have disappeared. And so has something else.

“The turnovers,” said Wolford, whose team turned the ball over 11 times in four games during a winless October in 2012 (they have zero through two games this month). “That’s the reason we lost those games. It’s that simple. You don’t turn the ball over, you have a chance to win.”

A sharpened mindset helps too.

Sirl admitted the Penguins allowed off-the-field criticism to affect them last year. He also said YSU got ahead of itself after the 4-0 start, which included a monumental win over Pittsburgh in the season opener. With the Penguins steamrolling through opponents and boasting the highest scoring offense in the conference (sixth nationally) at 41.9 points per game, it would be easy to let up against Western Illinois (3-4, 1-2) at 4 p.m. Saturday during homecoming. The Leathernecks have lost two straight, including a 35-21 defeat to an Illinois State team the Penguins just demolished, and don’t seem to be a factor in the MVC.

Sirl doesn’t care.

“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.”

Critics might say that YSU has played a weak schedule thus far and must still face three of the best teams in the conference – No. 1 North Dakota State, No. 13 Northern Iowa and No. 18 South Dakota State. That may be true, Sirl said YSU isn’t worried about what other people are saying.

“One thing we have done well this year is that we haven’t really let criticism get into the locker room – we haven’t let it bother us,” he said. “Maybe that had an affect on us in the past, and we were more worried about what other people thought than what we knew we could do. So I think we’re taking the necessary steps to take care of what we can control.

“It could be senior leadership, but I just think we have an overall team camaraderie of a common goal. We just want to win and be a part of something special that hasn’t been seen here in a while.”