FCS coaches talk title game
By Charles Grove
Both Youngstown State head football coach Bo Pelini and his James Madison counterpart Mike Houston took time this week to preview their FCS National Championship contest on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas.
Houston called the Dukes and Penguins “the two hottest teams in the country” and there’s quite a bit of evidence for that. The teams have combined to win 17 consecutive games.
And what’s more, those wins came mainly against other teams in what are largely considered the top two conferences in FCS. Both the Missouri Valley Football Conference and the Colonial Athletic Association had four teams qualify in the 24-team playoff.
“[The matchup] doesn’t surprise me,” Houston said. “You have two teams from hands-down the two best conferences in the nation. We fully expected to have an opportunity to do this and I’m sure Youngstown State did as well.”
This matchup features two teams who are now showcasing balanced offenses. The Dukes average 284 yards per game on the ground while also averaging 241 yards through the air.
The Penguins aren’t much different as of late. YSU is gaining 257 rushing yards per game and their season passing average is now up to 174 yards. That’s a number that has grown in the playoffs after passing performances of 315 and 244 yards against Jacksonville State and Eastern Washington, respectively.
But what impresses Pelini is each team’s ability to not shoot themselves in the foot.
“They execute at a high level,” Pelini said. “They are not out trying to trick you or anything else. They are a fundamentally well-coached football team. For the most part they are not going to beat themselves.”
With the way YSU’s defense has performed this year, Houston is preparing for one of the toughest tests his offense will see this year, staring with that Penguins’ defensive line.
“When you first flip on the film, the thing you notice right off the bat is just how very, very good they are up front,” he said. “They have two long, extremely athletic, talented defensive ends that are great against the run and can do a great job rushing the passer.”
Houston has also been studying YSU’s safety situation. With LeRoy Alexander and Jameel Smith not making the trip to Eastern Washington for the semifinal, and both playing on the scout team this week at practice, the challenge now becomes attacking Jalyn Powell and Billy Nicoe Hurst, both of whom had an interception in that semifinal.
Powell also led the team in tackles against the Eagles, racking up nine.
“I think the two safeties have done a good job stepping in and being guys who are very, very good against the run against Eastern Washington,” Houston said.
Both teams are dealing with suspensions that will carry into Jan. 7’s title game. The Dukes have confirmed seven players have been suspended while multiple sources confirmed to The Vindicator that the Penguins will be without five players in Frisco.
Houston said none of his players were arrested and nobody was found to have been using performance-enhancing drugs. Pelini didn’t get into specifics this week, he said it’s been his team’s nature all year to fill in when needed.
“You have to be prepared to move on and it’s been next guy up, because we’ve been in that situation a few times in a number of different areas for different reasons,” he said. “It’s not like we haven’t been there before.”