Unexpected turn derailed Penguins’ season

Youngstown State University head football coach Eric Wolford yells at a referee during the Penguins’ victory against the University at Albany on Sept. 12. Photo by Dustin Livesay/The Jambar.

Ah, to go back to Oct. 5.

The Youngstown State University football team was 4-0. The YSU faithful were still faithful. Spirits among the players were high. Confidence sprang aplenty. The birds were chirping, and, well, you get the point.

Although you wouldn’t know it at the time, that Friday was the last day before the Penguins’ championship-destined season would take a U-turn into oncoming traffic.

The Penguins were boarding a flight at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport to head to North Dakota State University. If only someone could have warned head football coach Eric Wolford of the dangers waiting in Fargo, N.D. Mainly, it was the top-ranked, defending national champions: the Bison.

The Penguins’ defeat the following day was no surprise. The surprising aspect was the humiliation and embarrassment the Bison delivered to YSU.

In the process of having their lunch money stolen and getting stuffed in the trash can, the Penguins were exposed to the rest of the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

Suddenly, quarterback Kurt Hess’ passes were landing in the defenders’ hands.

Running back Jamaine Cook — although not shut down — was less effective, largely because the Penguins had to resort to a pass-heavy offense while trying to come back from large deficits.

And during the nightmarish month of October in which YSU went 0-4, the defense was, to put it nicely, ineffective.

As a result, the chipper mood and invincible feeling that surrounded the Penguins after early-season wins against the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Northern Iowa slowly faded into a sense of embarrassment.

But, hey, not winning a game from Sept. 22 until Nov. 3 will do that to a team. Especially a team that truly believed it was playoff — if not championship — bound.

Still, you have to give credit where credit is due.

During the losing streak, the YSU players didn’t point fingers (at least not publicly), remaining upbeat, positive and hopeful to the media.

Like a leader and quarterback should, Hess accepted responsibility for the team’s struggles when it was obvious that the losses were hitting him the hardest.

Also, funny-guy offensive tackle Andrew Radakovich still cracked jokes. Cook continued to say all the right things. And defensive captain Aronde Stanton never lost his “glass half full” mentality.

Maybe because of these actions, the Penguins were able to somewhat salvage their season, winning their final three games.

Finishing 7-4, playoff talk was kept alive until the ESPNU tournament selection show officially put an end to YSU’s 2012 campaign.

They didn’t go out with style, but the Penguins at least went out with pride.

Speaking of pride, it was painful to watch the season turn so harshly on Wolford, a Youngstown native so proud to represent his hometown.

With his supreme confidence and noticeable swagger, Wolford is a coach easy to love in the good times. That being said, he’s a coach easy to take shots at in the bad times.

He experienced both ends of the spectrum this season. But to his credit, his demeanor never changed — and that’s what you want from a head coach.

So, having caught so much heat, is Wolford still the right man for the job? I believe so.

From 3-8 in 2010 to 6-5 in 2011 and 7-4 this season, he’s made progress with the football program. Another step forward next year, say 8-3, would most likely earn YSU a playoff spot.

With a senior quarterback in Hess, a defense that improved by season’s end, a return for a majority of the starters and a head coach that has experienced such drastic ups and downs, another step forward is possible.

And if Wolford and the Penguins are fortunate, they’ll regain that glorious feeling they had on Oct. 5.