Playoffs return to Stambaugh

Penguins play host to Samford in first round of FCS playoffs

YOUNGSTOWN — Believe it or not, Youngstown State has been here before, and the Penguins are acting like it.

A 10-year playoff drought came to an end Sunday during the NCAA FCS playoff selection show, when it was announced YSU (8-3) will host Samford (7-4) at 5 p.m. Saturday at Stambaugh Stadium in a first-round playoff matchup.

The Penguins gathered together for the show and barely displayed any emotion when their name was called. The stoic approach came despite this being their first playoff appearance since 2006 — and there were numerous heartbreaking misses in between.

“We expected to be in the playoffs, so it wasn’t a shocker,” senior safety LeRoy Alexander said. “We’re looking forward to it. I know a lot of guys have been here four or five years and haven’t made it to the playoffs. I know they’re excited about it, so we’re ready to get this going.

“We’re definitely trying to go for the big one.”

That being the national championship, a title that regularly appeared in Youngstown during the 1990s but has been missing since 1997. A Penguin team built similar to those of the past believes it can bring the trophy back.

Second-year coach Bo Pelini, a Cardinal Mooney graduate, came back to Youngstown for this kind of opportunity.

“I’m really proud of these kids because we’ve come a long way in a year,” he said. “I was really disappointed we didn’t do it a year ago. I thought we would’ve, and it didn’t happen, so (it’s nice) to get over the top. I think it’s been a while. I don’t know how long, but that’s what we’re in it for — to win and compete for a national championship.”

To reach that point, YSU must beat the Bulldogs, a Southern Conference team that received an at-large bid despite losing two of its last three games (one was to Mississippi State of the FBS and another was to seventh-ranked The Citadel).

Samford is led by record-setting quarterback Devlin Hodges, who has completed 71.4 percent of his passes (342-of-479) for a school-record 3,716 yards, 33 touchdowns and eight interceptions. His favorite target is Karel Hamilton, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior who leads the FCS with 100 receptions for 1,242 yards (second in the FCS) and 14 touchdowns.

“We hear they like to pass the ball, so it’s going to be on the (defensive backs) this game,” said Alexander, who leads YSU with three interceptions.

The Penguins counter with a defense that has an FCS-best 40 sacks and a secondary allowing just 186 yards passing per game. YSU also boasts a rushing attack that’s averaging 260.5 yards per game and is coming off a 575-yard performance in a 65-20 win over Missouri State on Saturday.

The Penguins also have an added bonus of playing at home, where they’re a gaudy 14-1 in the playoffs, winning 14 straight after losing the initial playoff game at Stambaugh Stadium in November of 1990. One of their victories was a 10-0 win over Samford in 1991, the year YSU won its first national championship. The Penguins were 6-0 at “The Ice Castle” this year, one of five FCS schools to go unbeaten at home.

“I hope it’s sold out,” Alexander said. “Youngstown hasn’t seen this in 10 years. Hopefully everybody comes out and supports. It’s going to be a cold one as usual, but it’s nothing we can’t handle.”

Pelini, who said he was hoping to be one of the top eight teams that received a first-round bye, isn’t looking past anyone, but he admits the Penguins didn’t set out to simply make it to the postseason.

“Yeah, you enjoy it, you’re in the playoffs,” he said, “but we’ve got bigger things in mind.”

The next big thing would be a road game at third-seeded Jacksonville State, last year’s national runner-up.