YOUNGSTOWN - In last year's season finale, the Youngstown State Penguins needed a win to make the FCS playoffs. In this week's season finale, the Penguins need a win to make the playoffs. Though the two sentences might sound exactly the same, the circumstances behind the two are drastically different.
In 2011, YSU was in with a win. But, as the Penguins now admit, overlooked Missouri State and were upset by the Bears, 38-34 - ending their season with a 6-5 record.
This season, the Penguins need a win, and some help from other schools sitting around the FCS, not just the Missouri Valley Conference, to even have a chance at the postseason. But no matter what, if the Penguins don't win on Saturday, their season is done.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Youngstown State’s Christian Bryan makes a catch against South Dakota earlier this season. The Penguins play their regular season finale on Saturday against Indiana State.
"If it's meant to be, it's meant to be," YSU coach Eric Wolford said. "I do know this. Of the 10 FCS teams we've played, seven of them have been ranked in the Top 25. That, with a Pitt win, which to me, why play money games if they are going to hold it against you? I think they should count as two. But, that's all for not if we don't take care of business."
While the Penguins (6-4) admitted to looking past Missouri State last season, there is no chance of that this season against Indiana State. For one, the Sycamores are sitting at 7-3 and also need to win to be able to advance to the playoffs. Secondly, Indiana State brings into Stambaugh Stadium one of the best running backs in the conference in Shakir Bell.
Bell is currently second in the Missouri Valley Conference in rushing, having 251 carries for 1,421 yards and 11 touchdowns. It poses an interesting matchup as YSU has Jamaine Cook, who is third in the conference with 1,150 yards rushing this season and 14 touchdowns.
"I'd say we are a little different," Cook said. "I'm a little more of a power guy, he's more of a speed guy. He's definitely faster than me, but we're both very productive for our teams."
Besides bringing in one of the top running games in the conference, the Sycamores also have one of the top defenses in the conference. Indiana State is second in the conference - only behind North Dakota State - in total defense, allowing 286.6 yards per game and 13 points per contest.
"Their defense is something that the coaches have been stressing to us all week," Cook said. "It's going to be a task for our offense, but like I said, I think our offense is confident that we can do what we do against anyone we play."
Knowing the challenge before them, Cook knows that it will take a near perfect game by the Penguins to win the regular-season finale. Along with the fact that their playoff hopes live and die by the outcome of Saturday's game, the game also is the last time Cook and the rest of the YSU seniors will ever walk out on to the field at Stambaugh Stadium.
"I've been trying not to think about it because I don't want to get too emotional," Cook said. "I've had a long journey here, and I've been very productive. To think that it's coming to an end is kind of heartbreaking because I love this place. It's been great to me. I just love it here and this university."
Kickoff is at 2 p.m.