PUSKAS: YSU lost to version of itself

The Youngstown State football team beat itself to an extent in the FCS national championship game on Saturday in Frisco, Texas.

A blocked punt and a shank set up two James Madison touchdowns in the first quarter. A bad snap cost the Penguins a potential field goal.

YSU also turned the ball over twice and quarterback Hunter Wells was pressured often and sacked five times.

But if there is any solace in a 28-14 loss to the Dukes — who denied the Penguins a fifth national title — it’s that YSU now knows exactly what it must do to get one for the thumb.

That’s because the Penguins lost to a little better version of themselves. There is no shame in that, but there is opportunity.

JMU (14-1) did what no opponent had been able to do to YSU (12-4) since the Penguins’ 24-3 loss at North Dakota State on Nov. 5.

JMU controlled the line of scrimmage. The Dukes played a fast, physical and smart brand of football and they did it mostly mistake-free. They ran the ball when they wanted to and used it to set up play-action shots downfield. They produced big plays and minimized the Penguins’ chances for them.

That was YSU’s calling card in the 1990s. And it also had also worked for second-year head coach Bo Pelini’s Penguins for the last several weeks.

But this time, YSU ran into a team that does the things it loves even better than it does.

The Penguins’ only scores came after Solomon Warfield got a hand on a Dukes punt late in the first half to give YSU a short field, and in the game’s closing minutes, when Wells engineered a long TD drive with the outcome already decided.

The final numbers are a bit misleading. YSU outgained JMU 292-253 in total yardage and had 23 first downs to the Dukes’ 15.

Wells, forced to throw far more than the Penguins would have liked, was 26 of 47 for 271 yards and two TDs. But 10 of those completions were dump-off passes to Jody Webb because not much was available downfield.

JMU’s Bryan Schor was just 7 of 12 for 112 yards, but he threw two TD passes and the Dukes’ vertical passing game was far more effective.

The suspensions that cost YSU two starting safeties didn’t help.

It also didn’t help that the Penguins had to be wary of Khalid Abdullah, the best running back in the FCS this season.

Abdullah ran for 101 yards and two TDs on 26 carries, but 30 yards came on one play, so he didn’t exactly dominate YSU.

But the Penguins never got their own running game started. Webb ran for a team-high 41 yards on 17 carries — an average of 2.4 yards.

The holes and lanes that were so readily available against EWU just weren’t there.

That hadn’t happened since the NDSU game two months ago. It is telling that only the Bison and Dukes — teams in the mold of the old Penguins — were the last two opponents to beat YSU.

That leads to perhaps the biggest takeaway from this mostly unexpected, but thrilling run: The culture change Pelini promised and worked to deliver has happened.

Now the Penguins just need to take the next step.

Write Vindicator Sports Editor Ed Puskas at epuskas@vindy.com and follow him on Twitter, @EdPuskas_Vindy.

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