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Pitt Vs. Youngstown State: Q&A With YSU Beat Writer Joe Scalzo

Youngstown State took on Michigan State last season (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)
Youngstown State took on Michigan State last season (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)
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Our game week coverage continues with a Q&A with Youngstown State beat writer Joe Scalzo, who covers the team for the area newspaper, the Vindicator. We've linked to some of his articles at here and be sure to check out his writing for plenty of good stuff on Pitt's first opponent.

For us, he discussed two of the team's stars, Jamaine Cook and Kurt Hess, the coaching staff, what he looks for in Saturday's game, and more.

Onto the Q&A (my questions in bold, his answers in italics).

Jamaine Cook is the guy to watch in the backfield with approximately 1,400 yards last season. Just how much will the offense rely on him in 2012?

They keep saying they're going to limit his carries this year so he'll be fresher, but we'll see. I don't think he'll need to play as big of a role as he did the past two years. Besides, nobody is worried about Youngstown State's offense being a problem (although losing starting WR Jelani Berassa to an ACL injury was a big hit). It's the other two units that have been a problem.

Junior quarterback Kurt Hess is already scattered all over the school's all-time record lists. He's got a long way to go, but do you think he can be considered an NFL prospect by the end of his career?

I think Kurt has a NFL head, a NFL body and a NFL work ethic. I'm not convinced he has a NFL arm but he's got a lot of other strengths to make up for not having a cannon.

I think he's a guy who could make a NFL roster as a No. 3 guy. He's really good at sizing up a defense pre-snap and making the right read and he's very accurate. And his character is off the charts.

The Penguins' defense struggled a bit in 2011. Is the unit expected to be improved this season?

Definitely. They've gotten a lot more athletic and there has been a night-and-day difference in some of this summer's scrimmages. The secondary is still a concern and there's still a lot of inexperience but I think it's got a chance to be pretty good by the end of the season. I'm sure there will be some growing pains early on.

One thing that is impressive about Youngstown State was that they won several blowout games and their losses were fairly close last year. Will that translate to a better win-loss record this season in your opinion?
I think so. You can definitely see a progression. In Eric Wolford's first year, 2010, he didn't have anywhere near as much talent as this team and Youngstown State was in every FCS game (and hung with Penn State for a half). They just wore out at the end of games.

Last year, they closed the gap on some of the best teams in the conference -- YSU was the only team to beat the national champs -- and I wouldn't be surprised to see them win the conference title. At the very least, I'd be stunned if they didn't make the FCS playoffs.

The coaching staff, led by head coach Eric Wolford is fairly new, having been in place for only three seasons. What's your general opinion of the job he's done so far and what types of teams does he put on the field?

Well, for one thing, he's a lot of fun to cover. Maybe not Steve Spurrier or Bobby Bowden fun, but the next level down.

From the beginning, I've felt like they found the right guy. He's a very good recruiter, he's good at communicating his expectations and he's gotten rid of the complacency that set in after Jim Tressel left. And he hasn't been afraid to get rid of underachievers or guys that didn't buy in, whether they were players (only 11 guys remain from the previous coaching staff's roster) or his coaches (he replaced his receivers coach and strength coach after one year and his defensive coordinator in February).

In general, his teams have played hard and have been really good offensively. He's just been young and thin on defense and special teams and it's cost him a lot of wins.

Looking over the school's history, they've played against several programs that have made the jump to the FBS, such as Marshall and Boise State. Do you think the day will come that Youngstown State makes that move?

Youngstown State was really, really close to joining the Mid-American Conference in the late 1990s and a lot of fans would still like to see that happen because it makes a lot more sense geographically. (The Penguins have never really developed a true rival at the FCS level.) That said, there are no plans to jump to the FBS, nor should there be. They're at the right level.

I think if you look at the teams that have successfully jumped to the FBS -- and Boise State is the most obvious example -- they come from areas where there's not as much competition for players, media attention, fans, etc. But let's say YSU were to join the MAC. Suddenly, they're competing against Akron and Kent State (both within 45 minutes) for players, not to mention all the other MAC schools in Ohio (Bowling Green, Toledo, Ohio, Miami) and all the nearby BCS schools (Ohio State, Pitt, Penn State, etc.).

Bottom line: YSU doesn't have the facilities, budget, recruiting base, etc., to make that jump and the people in charge know it. Teams like Marshall and Western Kentucky have gone from competing for national championships to hoping they'll eventually play in some December 26 bowl. YSU doesn't want to end up like that.

Youngstown State hasn't been all that competitive in their two recent games against Pitt. But the Panthers are a bit of an unknown this year and coming off a pretty down season last year. I doubt the Penguins will be intimidated at Heinz Field having played at more intense atmospheres, but because of their offensive firepower, do you expect the game to be a bit closer than some might think?

Tell me about it. I sat through the 2005 Pitt-YSU game and the only good thing I remember was the pregame fajitas they served the media. It was 42-0 and it felt like 420-0. So, yeah, it should be better than some of the previous games between the two.

There's a quiet confidence here that Youngstown State is capable of pulling an upset. I think that's a stretch, but I bet the Penguins could win one out of 10, whereas in 2005, YSU wouldn't have won 1 out of 1,000 against Pitt. Wolford's teams have played pretty well against BCS schools so far -- last year against Michigan State, for instance, it was a 21-6 game until midway through the fourth quarter -- so I think it will be closer than people think, especially since Pitt is still dealing with the aftermath of all the coaching turnover.
Thanks again to Joe for his input. Be sure to check out his work on

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