Special season might restore greatness at Youngstown State

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FRISCO, Texas (STATS) - The somber mood that was evident outside the Youngstown State locker room might have told the tale of their championship-game setback, but it certainly didn't define the season that was.

Through ups and downs, triumphs and adversity, one thing seems evident - Youngstown State football is back and poised to be a consistent national contender once again.

A run to the FCS national championship game proved the first part, but the Penguins would like to believe that Saturday's 28-14 loss to James Madison at Toyota Stadium is just a blip on the road to further progression.

"Every organization has its ups and downs," senior running back Jody Webb said. "Hopefully they'll pick up the pace and keep this going … I think they can."

A four-time national champion that dominated the FCS (then Division I-AA) for a good chunk of the 1990s, Youngstown State returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2006 and the title game for the first time since 1999.

Listen to players like Webb, who rushed for more than 1,300 yards but was held to 41 on Saturday, and it's clear coach Bo Pelini and his staff deserve a good share of the credit for the program's resurgence this season.

"They changed the culture," Webb said, "They instilled desire and doing things the right way."

The Penguins showed their desire in 2016 by overcoming injuries to key players like quarterback Ricky Davis and late-season suspensions to the likes of All-Missouri Valley Football Conference running back Martin Ruiz and standout receiver Darien Townsend.

"It shows the character of this team," said quarterback Hunter Wells, who was 28 of 47 for 271 yards with two touchdown passes and an interception against the Dukes.

En route to the final, Youngstown State knocked off reigning national runner-up Jacksonville State decisively on the road and stunned Eastern Washington - again away from home - in the semifinals on perhaps one of the greatest touchdown catches in college football history.

"It's a blessing," senior defensive end Derek Rivers said. "I couldn't think of a better way to go out (than playing for a national championship). I wouldn't trade this season for anything."

Neither would Wells, who battled confidence and maturity issues throughout the season to eventually help give his team a shot at winning it all. He'll be back next season, looking to help the Penguins take the next step after this special 12-4 season.

The sting of Saturday's defeat might linger a bit, but the promise of what is potentially ahead will make that immediate pain tolerable, and ultimately channel itself into a means of motivation for next season.

Youngstown State will lose a bevy of talented seniors, but those returning have the experience from this remarkable run that revived a program to believe it can succeed no matter what obstacles get in the way.

The groundwork has been laid. How the Penguins build on it remains to be seen, but they have a season filled of special memories to help guide them along the way.