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NDSU reminds Pelini of former Mooney teams

YOUNGSTOWN — There’s a dynasty coming to Youngstown State University on Saturday, one the Penguins need to conquer in order to find their way back into playoff contention.

YSU welcomes No. 1-ranked North Dakota State to Stambaugh Stadium at 6 p.m., Saturday. The Penguins will be fighting for their playoff lives against a team that has won seven of the last eight FCS Championships. It’s one of the greatest dynasties in FCS history.

The Penguins know a thing or two about FCS supremacy, and their coach knows something about dynasties.

Bo Pelini wasn’t part of the 1990 YSU teams, which won four national championships from 1991 to 1997, but the former star player did attend Cardinal Mooney High School in the ’80s, when the Cardinals won three state titles.

Now in his fifth year leading the Penguins, struggling to return YSU to its past prominence, Pelini sees a similar foe standing in the way. It’s one that looks similar to teams he once played on in Youngstown.

“I think back to all the success I had growing up in high school, playing for coach (Don Bucci),” said Pelini of the former Mooney coach and current athletic director, who won four state titles during his tenure. “We did what we did and said, ‘Stop it.’ We would always tweak things here or there, but fundamentally, coaching wise, we were really good. The culture was there, the belief was there. It’s a heck of a formula.”

It’s one Pelini is both trying to create and conquer.

The Penguins (5-3, 1-3 Missouri Valley Football Conference) wouldn’t be completely eliminated from playoff contention with a loss to the Bison (8-0, 4-0), but they wouldn’t be far from it. A win would not only snap NDSU’s 29-game winning streak (the longest in the nation), but it would vault YSU back into the FCS rankings and put a signature victory on its resume.

The Penguins figure they’re going to have to beat NDSU at its own game, which is running the ball, playing physical and being fundamentally sound in all aspects.

“It’s the little things,” said senior linebacker Cash Mitchell of what it takes to beat the Bison. “I’ve played against these guys for four years, and it’s always been so close. Coming to the end of the game, we just have to find that edge to win.”

The Penguins have had their chances.

They lost to NDSU by identical scores of 27-24 in each of the last two games at Stambaugh Stadium (one in overtime and another in which YSU blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead). YSU also dropped a close matchup in Fargo, N.D., last year.

Their task this season won’t be easy. The Bison boast a powerful offensive line, a dominant defense and a run game that has yet to be stopped. Oh, and their quarterback is arguably the top freshman in the nation.

The Penguins, coming off a 59-14 shellacking of Western Illinois, aren’t intimidated.

“We know what we have to do to beat these guys,” Mitchell said. “They’re beatable, so we just have to have a good week of practice, preparation and so forth.”

NDSU was pushed to the limit last week.

The Bison trailed then-No. 3 South Dakota State, which had to play its third-string QB for much of the game, before scoring 16 straight points. The Jackrabbits tied it at 16, and NDSU faced a fourth-and-inches from its own 29 late in the fourth quarter. They went for it and were rewarded with a 71-yard game-winning touchdown.

Pelini said the game didn’t reveal any kinks in the Bison’s armor. The recipe for a victory is simple. Executing it against the premier team in the FCS isn’t.

“You know it’s going to be a physical game,” Pelini said. “They’re going to come after us. We have to match that physicality and overcome that physicality — try to be the more physical football team. And not just some of the time, but for four quarters. They test you in that regard. If you don’t, you’re going to have a long night. That’s the reality of it.

“They’re not going to beat themselves,” he added. “You’re going to have to go beat this football team.”

Sounds a lot like the Mooney teams most people remember.

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