Photos courtesy Youngstown State Athletics

Youngstown State can cap Bo Pelini's homecoming with FCS title

Bo Pelini and Youngstown State have the chance to put some shine on Rust Belt football.

Thus far in college football’s FBS bowl season, the state of Ohio has replaced the “o’s” for zeroes in the win column. Pelini’s team can change that Saturday.

I The Penguins (12-3) will take on James Madison (13-1) at 12:05 ET Saturday in Frisco, Texas, for the Football Championship Subdivision national championship. For Pelini, a native of Youngstown, a victory would represent a significant resurrection of a coaching career that was never that tarnished.

Pelini won at least nine games in each of his seven seasons at Nebraska but the school fired him in November 2014. Soon after, he was hired at Youngstown State.

“Things happen for a reason,” he said last week. “At the end of the day, people make their decisions and you move on.”

The divorce was messy. A tape recording of Pelini making his final address to the Cornhuskers was made public with Pelini throwing some four-letter criticism at Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst. When introduced as the Penguins coach, Pelini commented that he now has “a president who understands football, who’s going to support me — something that I don’t know if I’ve ever had.”

Pelini’s president at YSU is one Jim Tressel, the former Ohio State coach who has hired at Youngstown State about six months before Pelini arrived. Tressel coached the Penguins for 14 seasons and the school won four Division I-AA (now FCS) national championships before he left for Columbus in 2000.

But Youngstown State’s football fortunes have been has lean as the local economy has been stagnant. Before this season, YSU had made one postseason appearance in the last 15 seasons.

The turnaround under Pelini has happened the old-fashioned way. The Penguins run the football (seventh in FCS in rushing) and their defense is unyielding (19th in total defense). It’s the kind of football that was played under Tressel and the kind of football Ohioans appreciate.

"There's a certain culture in Youngstown — blue-collar work ethic, attention to detail,” Pelini, who recently turned 49, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “The way we were brought up, that equates in football to success. Nothing magical. Understand the importance of a hard day's work. Stick to your principles. And try to extend that through a football game."

The postseason march of the Penguins has been impressive. Youngstown State finished the regular season 8-3 and was an at-large selection out of the Missouri Valley Conference. YSU has won three of its four playoff games on the road, beating the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds.

The Penguins qualified for their trip to Frisco with a last-second touchdown to win at Eastern Washington, 40-38. Youngstown State completed a rally from a 31-20 fourth quarter deficit when Kevin Rader made a one-handed catch of Hunter Wells’ pass for a 5-yard touchdown. Rader trapped the ball against the back of the Eastern Washington defender. It will be a catch-of-the-decade candidate.

“One thing about this tournament is you've got to earn your way there,” Pelini said. “Everybody has their shot. You've got to make the plays when it counts. That was a heck of a catch, a big-time play. He had his opportunity and he made a play.”

Youngstown State has won six in a row. Its last loss came on Nov. 5, a 24-3 thrashing at defending national champion North Dakota State. With a 6-3 record at the time, the Penguins’ season was at a tipping point.

“I said after that game that there was a lot more out there for our team,” Pelini said. “I think we have a lot of character on our football team. And we've gone through a lot in the season together, we've faced down some adversity and been able to kind of overcome it. We play in a tough conference. You're not going to go through it unscathed. You get stressed every week.”

The stress ends Saturday with a national championship on the line.

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