A Penguin state of mind

YSU’s sole focus is to win first national title in almost two decades

112616...R SAMFORD@YSU 7...Y-town...11-26-16... YSU's #20 Jody Webb makes a reception and breaks away from Samford's #32 Darius Harvey during 2nd Qt. actioin...by R. Michael Semple

YOUNGSTOWN — Players and coaches join the football team at Youngstown State University for one main reason — to win a national championship.

Sure, it’s been nearly 20 years since the last title at YSU, but the tradition and the expectations haven’t changed.

“Obviously when all the guys committed to come play here, we didn’t do it just to come and play however many (regular) season games we play and be done,” junior offensive lineman Justin Spencer said. “We all want more, we all want the national championship, but these (playoff) games are awesome for us. We all wanted to come here and compete on the big stage, and everybody’s really excited to get going with it.”

The Penguins (9-3) started the postseason with a bang — cruising past Samford, 38-24, in a first-round home game — but the competition goes up a notch in Round 2 as YSU travels to Jacksonville State at 2 p.m. Saturday. The Gamecocks are 10-1 (their only loss was to LSU), ranked second in both major FCS polls and are the third overall seed in the playoffs.

The Penguins believe they’re ready for the challenge.

YSU’s defense has been one of the best in the FCS all season, and while the offense struggled to score points for most of the year, it has been on a tear the last few weeks, rushing for 1,164 yards and 13 touchdowns over the last three games (an average of 388 yards and more than four TDs per game).

“It’s just about trusting one another,” said running back Jody Webb of what changed with the offense. “There have been times where we may have pointed the finger and no one wanted to step up and take the blame for what was going on, but at the end of the day, we’re a unit. We had to come together and find out what needed to be done — man up and make it happen. Right now we’re doing it at the perfect time. We’re going into Round 2. What better time to click on offense?”

Youngstown State needs to be at its best against Jacksonville State, which is second in the FCS in total defense, allowing 252.6 total yards per game. The Penguins are eighth (302.8). The Gamecocks are third in the nation in yielding just 78.8 rushing yards per game, which creates an intriguing matchup with run-heavy YSU.

“We’re going to let the coaches decide what the gameplan is,” said Spencer when asked how to attack the JSU defense, “but as a player, we just have to go out and be as physical as possible. When we get a chance to take shots, we’ve got to take them, and just try to impose our will.”

That’s something the Penguins have done well this year, led by a big, powerful offensive line, but the task becomes increasingly difficult against Jacksonville State.

YSU coach Bo Pelini is sticking with the motto, “It’s not about them, it’s about us,” a line he reiterates each week to help keep players focused on executing the gameplan, but he realizes the Gamecocks are one of the better teams the Penguins have faced this year.

“It’ll be a good challenge for us,” he said. “They’re going to put a lot of guys in the box — they’re kind of build to stop the run. They’re going to try to put more guys up there than you can block. That’s kind of how they’re built.”

JSU’s offense is impressive as well, rushing for nearly 3,000 yards and scoring 30 TDs on the ground. Senior quarterback Eli Jenkins leads the Gamecocks with 795 rushing yards and 12 TDs. Running backs Roc Thomas (782) and Josh Clemons (731) add another 1,500-plus yards and 16 TDs. They must crack a YSU defense that’s allowed an FCS-low four rushing TDs this season.

The matchup, the intrigue, the high stakes — those are all the reasons most players came to YSU.

“Since I’ve been here, everybody’s been talking about all those ’90 teams, the things they’ve done and accomplished,” said senior safety Jameel Smith about the four national titles YSU won in the 1990s. “Those are great — big shout out to those teams — but we’re trying bring that back to Youngstown.”