RELATED: Puskas: Penguins still alive & kicking despite hiccups
By Charles Grove
It was a game that had it all. Turnovers, missed opportunities, overtime and a new school record.
In the end, Youngstown State overcame all the adversity to defeat Wofford 30-23 in double-overtime to advance to their first FCS semifinal since 2006.
Jody Webb gained 213 yards on the ground and had 118 yards on kickoff returns to break the YSU single-game all-purpose yardage mark with 331 total yards.
Tevin McCaster scored on a 2-yard run in the second overtime before YSU’s defense held firm on a fourth-and-13 to seal the Penguins’ ticket to the west coast to play Eastern Washington for a trip to the FCS national championship game.
“The way the game was going, what mattered the most was winning,” Webb said. “That was probably one of the better, if not the best, games I’ve ever played in.”
Webb was a total workhorse in the backfield, taking 34 carries and averaging 6.3 yards per carry.
Webb said he found his motivation from teammate Martin Ruiz, who was benched for most of the night for unspecified reasons. Early in the year when Webb was out injured, it was Ruiz carrying the load.
“I told Martin Ruiz the only thing that kept me going was when I was tired I thought about when he was the one doing it carrying the ball 30 times,” Webb said. “Sometimes you’ve got to suck it up and do what’s best for the team.”
A clean game this was not, especially from a special-teams perspective. Placekicker Zak Kennedy made only one of his four field-goal attempts. Among the misses was a 37-yarder that went wide right in the first overtime session that would’ve sealed the win. Kennedy also missed an extra point in the second quarter.
“[Special teams] hasn’t been an area I’ve had to really worry about but it hurt us today,” YSU head coach Bo Pelini said.
Hunter Wells was tasked with facing a much different defense than the Jacksonville State defense that allowed him to get one-on-one coverage with his wide receivers all day. He was forced to be more precise, especially in the red zone. Two of his three touchdown passes came on third down in the red zone.
“It gives me a lot of confidence and it should give the team a lot of confidence knowing that they can count on me,” Wells said. “I don’t want to have to be the guy that saves the day, if I have to I will, but I want to be someone that they can rely on and trust.”
After falling behind in the first quarter on a blocked punt that led to a touchdown and then an interception that led to a field goal, YSU was staring at a 9-0 hole. But the Penguins climbed out of it by halftime, taking a 13-9 lead into the locker room.
But Wofford scored just 14 seconds into the second half when freshman quarterback Joe Newman kept it up the middle for a 75-yard score to put Wofford up 16-13.
Wells’ pass to Isiah Scott near the end of the third quarter made it 20-16 and things eventually became knotted up at 23 once Kennedy finally split the uprights with 5:04 to play.
Inside his own 10-yard line, Pelini tried a deep ball against single coverage that didn’t work, leaving time on the clock for Wofford’s kicker, David Marvin, who made five of six from 50 or more yards this season.
But YSU was able to get a hand on the 53-yard attempt to save their season.
“If I had one call I wanted back it was the second-down pass,” Pelini said. “I don’t know how much of a high-percentage play that was and with that kicker they have. There would’ve been some sleepless nights if we lost.”
In overtime, Wofford looked primed to score, gaining 14 yards in two plays, but eventually faced a fourth-and-inches situation from the 2. Instead of kicking, the Terriers went for the touchdown and Newman’s option pitch went out of bounds, ending the series with no points.
“I had to cut it up, but the linebacker came so I tried to get the ball outside any way possible and it got there kind of fast and he wasn’t ready for it,” Newman said.
After YSU’s missed field goal, the offense had to go right back to work, this time punching the ball into the end zone.
A false start on third-and-8 pushed Wofford back into passing situations. A double-reverse pass and a conventional pass on fourth down both fell incomplete, sending the 8,066 fans at Stambaugh Stadium home happy.
“I still thought they were going to run it,” YSU linebacker Armand Dellovade said of the final two plays. “Early in the game it was third-and-long and they’d run it for eight yards and get a first down so I didn’t know, but we were able to cover them well.”
The win propels YSU into an FCS semifinal on the road against Eastern Washington, the second-seeded team in the playoffs.
“It’s everything we expected,” Webb said. “We’ve been preparing for about a year now and to get to this point and even further, I think it’s well deserved. We’ve worked our butts off.”