When you think of Youngstown State, what is the first thing that comes to mind?
I'm guessing most of you would say Bo Pelini. Frankly, at this point, that would probably my answer, too.
The Penguins made a big splash when they hired the freshly fired Nebraska coach to try and restore their once prominent program.
Therein lies what should actually be the answer to my opening question.
From the late 1980s through the 1990s Youngstown State was a I-AA (now FCS) football powerhouse. The Penguins, under the direction of head coach Jim Tressel, qualified for the postseason nine times in that span, winning four national championships.
Tressel left for Ohio State following the 2000 season and things haven't been the same since. In fact, the Penguins have made the playoffs just once (2006).
Pelini, a Youngstown native, was brought in to change that. And while he failed to end the drought in his first season - the Penguins finished 5-6 overall and 3-5 in the MVFC in 2015 - things appear, at least for now, to be trending in the right direction.
Youngstown State enters Saturday's MVFC opener against South Dakota with a record of 2-1, which includes wins over 2015 FCS Playoff qualifier Duquense and Robert Morris.
Hunter Wells started 18 games the past two seasons, including all 11 in 2015, but he's now buried on the depth chart.
Ricky Davis', who attempted just 18 passes while backing up Wells last year, is now running the show. A reporter I spoke with told me this week that Davis "ran away with the job" in fall camp.
Davis numbers have reflected his progress. He completed 54 percent of his passes for 376 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions in the team's first two games before missing the win over Robert Morris with a concussion.
He is expected to play against the Coyotes, but if he can't go it would be Trent Hosick and not Wells getting the start.
Youngstown State looks to be one of the top running teams in the country in 2016. Through three games, the Penguins are averaging 294.0 yards on the ground, which is good enough for fourth in the FCS.
Martin Ruiz leads the way with 3,455 career rushing yards and 33 touchdowns to his credit, but he's got a couple of very talented teammates to compliment him.
Jody Webb earned second team All-MVFC honors in 2015 after pacing the Penguins with 857 yards and 9 touchdowns. His average of 7.02 yards per carry ranked 6th in the country. He picked up where he left off with 96 yards on 11 carries in the season-opening win against Duquense before being injured. He hasn't played since, but looks to return to the lineup this week.
With Webb sidelined, YSU has supplemented Ruiz with sophomore Tevin McCaster. All he's done is average 78 yards on 6.9 yards per tote with two touchdowns.
While the offense has been impressive, it is important to remember that Pelini made his name as defensive coordinator. Say what you want about his defenses at Nebraska, but there's no question that his Penguins have proven to be awfully tough on that side of the ball.
Youngstown State returns nine starters from a unit that finished second in the MVFC last year in total defense (288.7 ypg) and first against the pass (116.7).
It all starts up front with a defensive line that features two premier pass rushers. Derek Rivers owns a school record 28 career sacks - including five against South Dakota - and has recorded at least one in 13 of his last 19 games.
Nebraska transfer Avery Moss isn't quite that disruptive, but he's not far off either. Moss dropped opposing quarterbacks three times last season and has added two more in the Penguins first three games.
Youngstown's linebackers can also get to the quarterback. Armand Dellovade was named to the MVFC's All-Newcomer squad following a true freshman season that saw him finish with four sacks in nine starts.
The pressure generated up front has certainly benefitted the guys on the back end, although they don't seem to need much help. The numbers, which were pretty incredible a year ago, are a little deceiving this season. The Penguins have surrendered 693 yards through the air in 2016, but more than half of that came in their loss to West Virginia. Their two FCS opponents have combined for 304 yards passing (152.0 avg).
The group is anchored by another first-team All-MVFC selection in free safety LeRoy Alexander. Alexander - another Nebraska transfer - led the Penguins with four interceptions last year and also finished second on the team in tackles.
Youngstown State is 4-0 all-time against South Dakota, inlcuding last year's 31-3 win in Vermillion, although the Penguins haven't always dominated. In fact, two of the other three games have been decided by four points or less.
Youngstown State edged the Coyotes, 13-10, in Youngstown in 2012 and then nipped them again, 38-34, at the DakotaDome, the following year.
This will be the second consecutive year that Youngstown State and South Dakota have met to open the conference season. The Penguins are 16-3 in MVFC openers since joining the league in 1997 and have won a league-best seven straight. Their last loss to open conference play came at South Dakota State in 2008.