YSU kicks off college football’s 150th season

YOUNGSTOWN — Even though Youngstown State’s football history began nearly 70 years after the birth of college football, the Penguins will be a part of the opening game of the sport’s 150th season.

YSU will face the Samford Bulldogs at 3 p.m. Saturday in the sixth annual FCS Kickoff at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama. The game will be nationally broadcast on ESPN.

“It didn’t really strike me until I saw these patches on our uniform,” West Branch graduate and senior offensive lineman Jake Zinni said. “I was like ‘Man, 150 years of college football is pretty sweet and I get to be a part of that.'”

“We’ve been looking forward to the game all summer,” South Range graduate and senior running back Joe Alessi said. “We really want to send a message with that game.”

The Penguins began play in 1938 when the school was Youngstown College and along the way made history with the invention of the penalty flag by Dike Beede in 1941 as well as Jim Tressel’s remarkable four national championship run in the 1990s.

Those aspects of YSU’s tradition will no doubt be a part of the first Saturday of college football.

Even with the added excitement of the 150th anniversary of college football, the game is a stark departure from previous openers for the YSU program. Usually the Penguins open with a Power Five conference, NCAA Div. II or NCAA FCS non-scholarship opponent. This will mark the first time since 1996 the Penguins will start against a team on the FCS scholarship level (that was a 28-0 win over Wofford at Stambaugh Stadium).

“Usually we play an FBS school like West Virginia or Pitt, but this year it’s different,” Alessi said. “We played Samford in the first round of the 2016 playoffs (a 38-24 YSU win) and that was a good game up here and we want to bring that same intensity down there.”

It’s also an opportunity to forget a highly-disappointing 2018 season which started off with an embarrassing loss to FCS non-scholarship Butler at Stambaugh Stadium.

“I just want to go out and win ball games to be honest,” Zinni said. “The last couple years have been a little more rough than anyone expected. That’s just the way it rolled. It’s a fresh start this year and we’ve got a lot of new faces.”

Zinni played in all 11 games and made two starts last season in earning his second letter.

“Right now I’m playing guard, but I’ll do whatever this team needs me to do,” Zinni said. “At this point I’m a starter, but I’m waiting until Aug. 24 to see where I’ll be.”

Alessi earned his third letter last season while playing in 11 games mostly on special teams and as a reserve running back. He totaled 11 carries for 103 yards and a touchdown in 2018.

“Since it’s my senior season, I’ve been thinking this is my last time to strap it up and play college football,” Alessi said. “I just want to do what I do and have fun and play with my guys out there.”

Alessi said he’ll take on any role coach Bo Pelini asks of him.

“My role will be running the football and doing everything I can to contribute,” Alessi said. “I just want to be a playmaker.”

The team goal is to return to the playoffs and perhaps make a run like the memorable one in 2016 which ended one win shy of an FCS national championship. Youngstown State was 6-5 in 2017 and 4-7 in 2018.

“The 2016 team was the most fun I had playing football,” Zinni said. “It was also the longest year. You don’t really think about that though because it was so much fun.”

Alessi and Zinni are both confident the offense can contribute big things this season.

“We have a lot of explosive guys that can make a lot of plays,” Alessi said. “We will be able to pass and run the ball. We’re going to be able to open up the game.”

“I want the strength of the offense to be running the football,” Zinni said. “And that’s what an offensive lineman should want it to be.”

Game notes

• Alessi already has enough credits to graduate from his biology major and is finishing up classes for his business minor. Once he has finished his schooling at YSU, he’ll head to Ohio State University for dental school.

• The College of New Jersey (now Princeton) and Rutgers played the first college football game on Nov. 6, 1869. Those two schools will not play to mark the 150th anniversary of college football and have not met since 1980.

• The first college football game played in Ohio came on Dec. 8, 1888, as Miami (Ohio) and Cincinnati played to a 0-0 tie in Oxford. Ohio was the 20th state to play college football.

• It is believed that no college football game has ever been played in Columbiana County.