Just about everyone — save for Wofford’s players, coaches and fans — left Stambaugh Stadium happy as the wind swirled and light faded Saturday.
But you can bet no one was happier — or experienced a greater sense of relief — than Youngstown State kicker Zak Kennedy as the Penguins’ defense held one final time against the Terriers in an FCS quarterfinal.
The result was a 30-23 YSU victory in double-overtime, a berth in the national semifinals and a kicker who won’t have to carry the weight of what could have been a season-ending loss with him throughout the offseason.
Kennedy, a sophomore from Cardinal Mooney, struggled in the cold and wind at the Ice Castle. The left-footed kicker missed three field goals — including one that was blocked — and shanked an extra-point. Kennedy did connect on a 32-yard field goal into the wind with 5:04 to play. That kick tied the game at 23 and made overtime possible for the Penguins.
But Kennedy and the YSU special teams struggled all day against Wofford. Mark Schuler had a punt blocked on the Penguins’ first possession and Kennedy missed wide left from 37 yards on the next drive. He also had a 40-yard attempt blocked midway through the third quarter and missed from 37 again in the first overtime.
Schuler had to punt from his own end zone late in regulation with the game tied and delivered a low line drive of 31 yards into the wind that was downed at the YSU 43. Wofford played for a field goal from there, running up the middle three times and sending out David Marvin for a 53-yarder with the wind at his back. But Marvin’s kick on the final play of regulation had no chance and dribbled to the turf well short.
If you could have convinced YSU coach Bo Pelini that his team would miss three field goals and a PAT kick, turn the ball over twice on an interception and a fumble and give up a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second half, even he probably wouldn’t have been optimistic about his team’s chances.
“Special teams hasn’t been an area I’ve had to really worry about this year, but it hurt is today,” Pelini said. “You’re fighting an uphill battle when you get a punt blocked and then you’re turning the football over.
“There were mistakes in all three phases of the game, but we were able to pick each other up as the game went on.”
The Penguins (11-3) overcame plenty on a bitter December day. The Terriers (10-4) got the drop on them from the start and gave the Penguins all they wanted despite a decided disadvantage in first downs (21-11) and total yards (413-297).
But YSU overcame its slow start and a flurry of special-teams mistakes thanks to running back Jody Webb, who rushed for 213 yards and set a Penguins single-game record with 331 all-purpose yards, breaking a record held by Dave DelSignore since 1969, and quarterback Hunter Wells, who threw three touchdown passes.
Wells’ early interception — on the heels of the blocked punt and missed field goal — led to a Wofford field goal as the Terriers led 9-0 after the first quarter. But the junior, who regained his starting job in recent weeks and has played well since becoming the Penguins’ best option again, threw TD passes of 9 yards to Darian Townsend, 45 yards to Damoun Patterson and 5 yards to Isiah Scott.
Wells finished 15 of 23 for 173 yards.
“We left a lot of points out there today,” he said. “Whether it was special teams or offense, but it always comes back on me. I can’t turn the ball over.”
Webb’s 31-yard run — his longest of the day — set up Wells’ TD pass to Scott. He also ran twice for nine yards on back-to-back plays in the second OT to set up Tevin McCaster’s tie-breaking 2-yard TD run.
Webb said the Penguins had one thought in the second OT.
“Just getting the ball into the end zone,” he said. “We left it up to the special teams the first time and when we went back out there we said it was in our hands. Put up or shut up. We were just focusing on scoring.”
Now, with a trip to Eastern Washington and a date with the Eagles on their red turf in Spokane, the Penguins’ focus must turn to special teams. Championship teams don’t have these kinds of hiccups. The guy in YSU’s presidential loge can confirm that.
Mistakes in the kicking game can be fatal. Ohio State lost a chance at a perfect season because it couldn’t get a punt off late against Penn State. YSU nearly saw its best season in 10 years end Saturday. It’s not a stretch to suggest that the Penguins probably won’t survive a similar special-teams performance next week on the road against the No. 2 seed in the FCS.
YSU has used all four of its quarterbacks — mainly out of necessity — this season. The Penguins also have used three different kickers, mainly because Kennedy had been battling a leg injury.
There were no indications that the injury was a factor Saturday, but after Kennedy’s miss in the first overtime, Pelini sent backup kicker Connor McFadden in for the extra point after McCaster’s go-ahead TD.
Was it not-so-subtle a message?
Maybe so. But remember, Kennedy’s misses weren’t all that went wrong.
YSU has fixed its passing game on the fly in recent weeks. Special teams, you’re on the clock.
Write Vindicator Sports Editor Ed Puskas at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @EdPuskas_Vindy.