Sunday, November 27, 2016
By Charles grove
Youngstown State opened its national title hopes with a convincing second half to defeat the Samford Bulldogs 38-24 on Saturday in the first round of the FCS playoffs at Stambaugh Stadium.
Four different YSU players — Shane Kuhn, Tevin McCaster, Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb — scored rushing touchdowns as the Penguins ran for 289 yards and eventually pounded the Bulldogs into submission.
Webb led the Penguins in rushing with a career-high 174 yards and two touchdowns in a game where YSU (9-3) continued what they were doing in the first half. YSU head coach Bo Pelini said his team just made Samford give in.
“We just stayed with it and kept pounding it and imposing our will on them,” Pelini said. “But we still haven’t played our best football of the year yet and that’s a good thing.”
Samford tried to get their potent passing game working, but after some success in the first quarter, YSU’s defense adjusted well and didn’t allow an offense that was averaging 347 yards per game many scoring opportunities through the final three quarters.
While Bulldogs quarterback Devlin Hodges finished with 372 passing yards, many of them were in garbage time after the Penguins built a 31-7 lead when Webb ran it in from six yards out early in the fourth quarter.
Defensive end Derek Rivers said playing teams of a similar offensive style as Samford really helped YSU prepare for the Bulldogs’ fast-paced style.
“West Virginia had that tempo and South Dakota did too,” Rivers said. “Practice was so fast this week so we were really prepared for it.”
YSU quarterback Hunter Wells played well and effectively moved the offense down the field. He finished with 142 yards, completing eight of 12 passes. Quarterback Nathan Mays was brought in mainly in read-option scenarios. He rushed six times for 26 yards.
“We were really efficient at taking care of the football,” Pelini said. “We ran the ball really well and were able to mix Nate in there at times. It was just what the doctor ordered.”
At halftime it appeared this would be a game that would remain close. The Penguins couldn’t get into the end zone during the final moments of the second quarter and took a 10-7 lead into the locker room.
But Samford head coach Chris Hatcher said the big plays YSU hit in the third quarter were the real difference.
Wells hit Kevin Rader for 41 yards on the first play from scrimmage in the second half to the Samford 11 which set up McCaster’s touchdown run to make it 17-7 Penguins.
“In the second half they hit their big play, we got held to a three-and-out and then they just wore us down,” Hatcher said. “They played like we knew they would and they were just the better team and you have to take your hat off to them.”
Linebacker Lee Wright, who had been suspended during the regular season, saw some playing time against Samford. Pelini expects both Wright and defensive end Avery Moss, who sat out this game with an ankle injury, to be in full force next week against Jacksonville State.
“You’re going to see more of [Wright] because he’ll have a full week of practice this week and he’s a big-time asset for us,” Pelini said. “We didn’t get to use him as much as we’d like this week since he got cleared in the middle of the week, but I anticipate having him and Avery back for next week.”
Rivers said this win felt especially good after a few years of YSU teams not finishing games in the final 30 minutes of games.
“Previously we weren’t a second-half team, but Coach Bo kept telling us at halftime if we kept playing the way we were playing we’d like the outcome.” Rivers said.
YSU now moves on to play third-seeded Jacksonville State (10-1) Saturday in Jacksonville, Ala. The game is set for 2 p.m. with the winner moving on to the FCS quarterfinals.