Playoffs are what Pelini had in mind

Even though the facts have been thrown out there countless times, they’re still hard to wrap your mind around.

It’s really been 10 years since Youngstown State has made the FCS playoffs? (Actually, it was still Division I-AA back then). Really? The same school Youngstowers used to watch dominate in the 1990s is making just its second trip to the postseason since Jim Tressel left 16 years ago? Two, in 16 years!

No way. Not possible.

Believe it.

Just how is that possible, most people are wondering. That answer is simple: The Missouri Valley Football Conference. It’s as good as several FBS leagues, and YSU isn’t devoid of its clout.

Just how the Penguins got back into the postseason is a bit more complex.

If you’re a regular follower of the Penguins, who host Samford at 5 p.m. Saturday in the first round, you know there have been excruciating, almost impossible-to-believe losses over the last decade that have kept YSU one win away from qualifying. There have been inexplicable snubs by a committee that apparently doesn’t think highly of a program that won four national titles — and appeared in six total — from 1991 to 1999.

It took one of the most renowned defensive coaches at the FBS level to return Youngstown State to the playoffs, and even then, Bo Pelini and the Penguins had to win the final game of the regular season to advance. They did just that — with an emphatic 65-20 victory — and here we are.

The word “we” is used because the city of Youngstown once took a great deal of pride in this football team. A win for the Penguins was a win for the city. Frigid temperatures, a low-scoring style known as “Tressel Ball” and a stadium that truly turns into an Ice Castle when the wind picks up couldn’t keep rabid fans from packing Stambaugh Stadium.

The truth is, those days are over. Pelini is trying to start a new era.

The fiery 48-year-old is doing it in a similar manner: with a dominant defense and a power running game. What Pelini has done in two seasons to a team that had no defensive identity for most of the last 10 years is miraculous. The Penguins went from being dead last in the conference in total defense to leading it. But numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Pelini is a mastermind when it comes to schemes. He and his younger brother, Carl, devised YSU’s defense on their own, like two mad scientists mixing vials of football potion in a laboratory. There haven’t been any antidotes for it thus far.

The Penguins have allowed just four rushing touchdowns all year, and the secondary, which led the nation in fewest yards allowed last year, was again tops in the conference in that category this season. Two bookends, NFL prospects Avery Moss and Derek Rivers, have led the nation’s best pass rush to an FCS-best 40 sacks. And yet still, that’s not why the Penguins are back.

Pelini’s knowledge, schemes and even the credibility he earned during a career that’s spanned from the NFL to some of the best college football programs in the country wouldn’t have meant squat if Pelini didn’t have the right approach. His message to the Penguins when he got here in December of 2014 up to Saturday’s game hasn’t changed. It’s about being accountable — in life and in football.

“There’s a blueprint, and it’s pretty black and white,” said Pelini during a long, detailed explanation of how the culture around YSU’s football team has changed since his arrival. “You’re either right or you’re wrong. You’re either doing what we’re asking you to do, or you’re not. If someone’s not capable of doing that off the field, I’m probably not going to trust them to do it on the field either. And if you’re not doing that — holding guys accountable and not doing those things — and you talk about having a culture, then you’re just paying it lip service.”

The only compliment I’ve heard Pelini pay himself since  taking over at YSU might be the most telling. He referred to himself as a “consistent” person at a recent press conference. His demeanor might change (sometimes for the worse), but his approach and beliefs are unflappable.

The Penguins have bought into that way of life, and simply put, it’s the reason they have a chance to make a run at another national championship.