Though the end of summer signals the beginning of another school year and the start of test-taking and paper-writing, it also marks the start of football season, which officially kicks off this Saturday as the Youngstown State University Penguins take on the University of Illinois Fighting Illini at Champaign, Illinois.
Head coach Eric Wolford will make his return to Memorial Stadium for the first time since leaving Illinois to become the running game coordinator at the University of South Carolina. Wolford and Tom Sims, assistant head coach at YSU, were both on the coaching staff that led the Illini to a 9-4 record and a Rose Bowl appearance in 2008.
“It will be the first time back since I left,” Wolford said. “When I left to go to South Carolina, I just picked up and — other than one trip back to help my wife move — this will be my first time back as far as being around the football arena.”
Having coached in Illinois in the past, Wolford said he is familiar with the level of talent that the Illini will put on the field on Saturday.
“One thing Illinois is never short on is talent — even going back to when I was there. I saw a stat the other day that said they have the second most NFL players in the Big Ten, behind only to Ohio State,” he said. “One thing Illinois has and always had is a bunch of very good football players.”
The Penguins enter the season ranked 21st in the Football Championship Subdivision — higher than they were ranked last year, in spite of the loss of several key players on offense and new schemes being implemented on defense.
For Dante Nania — who made headlines last week after being named this season’s starting quarterback — the season opener will be his first career start. Nania sat behind four-year starter Kurt Hess during his first two seasons at YSU.
The group with the most hype around the offense this year is the running backs. Martin Ruiz had a breakout season last year as a true freshman, rushing for over 1,000 yards and contributing 17 total touchdowns.
Even though the Penguins will be on the road against a bigger school with more talented recruits, the team is excited to take the field. The players said that a win against Illinois will help improve YSU’s athletic reputation.
“It’s a chance to put our program on the map. If we go out there and compete with them or have a chance to beat them, it’s on ESPN,” Donald D’Alesio, a senior safety, said. “A lot of recruits can see that. We’re not the big time BCS program. It’s fun to go out there in front of all those people, the big stadium and be on national TV.”
The opportunity to play a Bowl Championship Series school on national television could be overwhelming for a young player. Veterans like D’Alesio have drawn on their past experiences to develop important game day preparation lessons for younger players.
“They put their stuff on the same way we do,” he said. “They’re the Big Ten School, but they’re football players too and at the end of the day you have to go out there and execute.”
The Penguins said they have a chance to leave Champaign with a win. The players trust the coaches have put them in the best position to compete on Saturday.
“One of our fundamentals to success is expecting to win,” Nate Adams, a senior tight end, said. “No disrespect to any opponent we play — we respect everybody we play. But we go into every game with the attitude of expecting to win, which is different than wanting to win.”