Ready for contact

Penguins anxious to hit against a real opponent

Youngstown State quarterback Hunter Wells throws a pass during practice Tuesday at Stambaugh Stadium in Youngstown. After five weeks of hitting their teammates, the Penguins are ready to make contact with an opponent. They get that chance Saturday in the season opener at Pitt.

YOUNGSTOWN — Some of them are red. Some are white. Some black, and there are even some green ones.

The many colors of their practice uniforms mean very little to Youngstown State football players. They’re still hitting other Youngstown State football players, something they’ve done almost every day throughout training camp.

With camp hitting the five-week mark, players have grown tired of the same old trash talking between teammates. Furthermore, it’s been seven months since the Penguins’ 28-14 loss to James Madison in the FCS Championship. The hype from that playoff run has worn off.

The Penguins are hungry to bring back a similar atmosphere in 2017, starting Saturday.

“I’m so ready to hit against a different team,” YSU junior running back Tevin McCaster said. “We’ve been hitting up against each other all camp, all spring, so we’re ready to go and get this season under way.”

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Defensive back D.J. Smalls, left, guards receiver Thomas Joffray Tuesday during Youngstown State’s practice at Stambaugh Stadium.

The Penguins had better be ready.

They face Atlantic Coast Conference member Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh at 1 p.m. Saturday. YSU lost a shootout, 45-37, to the Panthers back in 2015 — Pitt’s first season under coach Pat Narduzzi. Pitt has gradually improved under the Youngstown native. The Panthers finished 8-5 last year, handing eventual College Football Playoff champion Clemson its only loss and also knocking off Big Ten champion Penn State.

It’s a test the Penguins are well aware of, but not one they are fearing after an impressive season of their own — finishing 12-4 with several sensational victories in the postseason. The aura of Heinz Field won’t rattle a team that has played in plenty of big moments.

“In the playoffs last year, it was huge just to keep your composure,” said senior tight end Kevin Rader, who made a spectacular catch in the final seconds of the national semifinal victory against Eastern Washington last year. “You can’t think about the plays or the drive in the moment, just do what you’re doing and focus on the little things you do in practice and execute.”

That formula becomes a bit more difficult for both schools this season.

Each team is enduring drastic changes after losing key players — some to graduation and others due to suspensions. The Penguins’ star defensive ends, Avery Moss and Derek Rivers, were NFL draft picks, and the majority of their 2016 secondary was seniors. One their top receivers, Darien Townsend, decided not to rejoin the team after a reported suspension at the end of last year.

Pitt suspended four players in late July, two of whom were likely starters. Jordan Whitehead is the biggest name on the list as he was one of the nation’s top safeties, listed on several national watch lists, including the Nagurski Trophy — given to the nation’s best defensive player. Whitehead and Quintin Wirginis are out for the first three games. Wirginis was another potential starter on defense at linebacker.

“Them being out is definitely a big factor,” Rader said. “A lot of them were starters, and they did things off the field that got them in trouble. At the end of the day, whoever they put in there, we have to gameplan what we want to do, not based off of them, and just execute.”

The head coaches have plenty in common as well. Narduzzi and YSU coach Bo Pelini went to rival Youngstown schools (Narduzzi to Ursuline and Pelini to Cardinal Mooney). They played against one another in high school and went on to college careers (Narduzzi at YSU and Rhode Island and Pelini to Ohio State). They’re both in their third year at their current school, and each is regarded as a defensive coach.

Narduzzi and Pelini have talked about how the culture at their respective schools has changed during their tenure, and they look to continue that newfound winning tradition against one another.

“We don’t talk a lot — when see each other we talk. We’ve known each other for a long time” Pelini said of Narduzzi, whose father, Bill, was head coach at Youngstown State from 1975 to 1985, paving the way for Jim Tressel. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Pat and how he goes about his business. He’s doing a really nice job at Pitt.

“It’s interesting because his father was obviously a huge icon in this program, so that’s the added twist.”

It’s one of many for two programs hoping for another big year.