Pelini: YSU can compete with anybody

Penguins picked to finish third in Missouri Valley preseason poll

The Missouri Valley Football Conference announced its 2017 preseason poll Tuesday, but it doesn’t appear Youngstown State football coach Bo Pelini took a glance at it.

If he did, he really didn’t care how it read.

Pelini’s Penguins were picked to finish third behind North Dakota State and South Dakota State, which were co-champions of the league last season ahead of third-place YSU.

Pelini, who spoke during a teleconference after the poll was released, wasn’t too concerned with the poll.

“I don’t know,” quipped Pelini when asked how YSU stacks up with NDSU and SDSU. “I don’t really pay attention to that. I know this: In the end, we’re going to get what we’re ready to go earn. Our players understand that. I don’t really get into comparisons or anything like that. We’re going to be ready to play our schedule and do what we have to do to develop our football team. If our guys are ready to work and continue along the lines of the type of work ethic and commitment that brought us some success last year, then we’ll be prepared to have a good year, but there’s a lot of things that have to happen.”

A lot of good things happened last year.

After finishing behind and losing to the Bison and the Jackrabbits during an inconsistent regular season, the Penguins played outstanding down the stretch. They won six straight — four in the playoffs — before dropping the FCS Championship game to James Madison.

Simply getting to the playoffs is quite the task in the MVFC, which has been labeled the best conference in the FCS by several publications over the last decade. The Penguins, who were picked to finish fifth in the conference last year, reached the 24-team playoff for the first time since 2006, and Pelini said after two seasons in the Missouri Valley, he knows there are no easy opponents.

“I always talk about the process,” said Pelini of whether YSU has the same potential as last year’s team. “If we stay with the process and work hard, we’ll be able to compete with anybody we play, but I know this, in our conference, if you’re not ready to play week in and week out, you’re going to have problems. To do that, you have to bring it to the practice field every single day. If we’re ready to do that, we’ll be able to line up and compete with anybody we play against.”

With eight of their 11 starters back on offense, Youngstown State should possess a balanced attack, but there are big shoes to fill on defense. Standout defensive ends Derek Rivers and Avery Moss were both chosen in the NFL Draft, and with them went 26 of the Penguins’ FCS-leading 49 sacks. Four starters also departed from what was an impressive secondary.

Pelini, as he has said before, won’t allow graduation to affect his scheme or system.

“We’re not going to change how we play,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of success over the years playing the way we play, and we have guys I believe on our roster that are going to fit right in. You don’t replace two guys like that, but we have some very able guys that are coming up and I think they’ll be able to step up and do their thing.”

They’ll need everyone playing at a high level to dethrone South Dakota State and North Dakota State. The Bison received 21 first-place votes and 380 total points, just a bit more than South Dakota State, which got 19 first-place votes and 379 total points. YSU had 290 points and zero first-place votes in the poll, which is created by league coaches, media and sports information directors.

Pelini, now in his third season leading YSU after a nine-year stint at Nebraska, feels like the Penguins are in a good position heading into the 2017 season.

“You’re always tweaking, but I’m a little bit more comfortable knowing what the challenges are now,” he said. “A couple years in and you feel like your culture’s gotten stronger. The players have a better understanding of where I’m coming from and where the staff is coming from.

“It’s a never-ending thing,” he added. “You continue to work and continue to try and develop your team and your culture, and that’s the point of where we are right now. We showed last year that we have a chance to compete on a yearly basis, but in this conference and the challenges that it presents, every year is a little different.”

The Penguins open preseason camp Aug. 3 and start the season Sept. 2 at Pittsburgh.