Dukes ready for final showdown with Penguins

JMU tight end Jonathan Kloosterman scores a touchdown against North Dakota State in the FCS semifinals on Dec. 16 in Fargo, North Dakota. The Dukes play Youngstown State in the FCS championship game today at noon in Frisco, Texas. Courtesy photo/JMU Athletics Communications

HARRISONBURG – A stellar season all comes down to one final game for James Madison University’s football team.

The Dukes put their 11-game winning streak on the line as they play in the Football Championship Subdivision title game against Youngstown State University at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, at noon today. The game will be televised on ESPN2.

“We know we’re going to meet probably our greatest challenge of the year, probably our most complete opponent of the year,” JMU head coach Mike Houston said. “An opponent that really went toe-to-toe with a very talented West Virginia team. …Certainly Youngstown State is battle tested. This should make for a really exciting and really a great national championship game for the FCS division, and were very honored that were going to be better as part of it.”

The Penguins (12-3) come into the game on a six-game winning streak and play in the Missouri Valley Conference. They are coached by former University of Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini. He was the head coach there from 2008-14.

Youngstown State is averaging 28.5 points per game this season, but they are averaging 37 points per game in the playoffs.

JMU's defense celebrates after a play against North Dakota State in the FCS semifinals on Dec. 16 in Fargo, North Dakota. The Dukes play for the FCS title today against Youngstown State in Frisco, Texas. Courtesy photo/JMU Athletics Communications

The offense is led by senior running back Jody Webb, who has rushed for 1,301 yards this season. He has also caught 27 passes for 353 yards this year. Webb also has 430 kick return yards. His 2,084 all-purpose yards is one of the tops in the country.

“He’s pretty dynamic. If anybody’s seen film of him you don’t let him get out, because if he gets out in the open field there’s a good chance you’re not going to catch him. He’s a great play maker,” Houston said. “They’re going to release him on passes a lot and get the ball to him in space whether it’s a swing or a flair or a wheel route out of the backfield. So it’s going to put us into tough situations. So we just got to do a really, really good job of executing our assignments and making sure we account for him in the run game and the pass game every single play.”

Youngstown State quarterback Hunter Wells has thrown for 1,443 yards on 107-for-169 passing with nine touchdowns. He became the starter in the seventh week of the season.

JMU’s defense has played better throughout the season and has allowed only 13.4 points per game in their last five contests.

Redshirt senior linebacker Gage Steele leads the team with 98 tackles. Safety Jordan Brown has 85 tackles and two interceptions. Safety Raven Greene leads the team with six interceptions.

The Penguins are allowing only 19.4 points per game this season, which is ninth in FCS. They are led by senior defensive linemen Derek Rivers and Avery Moss. Both are considered NFL draft prospects. They have combined for 24 sacks.

The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Rivers has 14 sacks and 52 tackles this season. The 6-foot-3 265-pound Moss has 51 tackles and 10 sacks.

Pelini said that Moss has made a lot of progress over the years.

“He’s a great kid. I’ve watched him really grow personally, which to me, that’s the most important part,” Pelini said. “I always look at it as our job is to help young men prepare for their life after college, and I know that Avery has come a long way and he’s going to be successful in whatever he does, and hopefully – I anticipate he’ll have a chance to play on Sunday.”

JMU running back Khalid Abdullah said the Dukes have their work cut out for them against the Youngstown State run defense.

“It’s a physical, physical defense,” Abdullah said. “I would compare them to North Dakota State. They’re going to be where they’re supposed to be. It’s going to be a lot of times where we’re going to be one-on-one with guys, and we’re going to have to make plays.”

The Dukes are second in the FCS in scoring offense (48 points per game) and total yards per game (525.6).

JMU junior quarterback Bryan Schor has thrown for 2,890 yards on 210-for-285 passing. He has 27 touchdowns and six interceptions. Abdullah has rushed for 1,708 yards and 20 touchdowns. Senior wide receiver Brandon Ravenel has 45 receptions for 720 yards and five scores.

“They are obviously a really good football team and a good offense,” Pelini said. “They are balanced. They can hurt you in a number of different ways. They spread the field on you and they have a lot of talent. You know, so you’ve got to be disciplined. You’ve got to execute very well what your plan is.”

The Dukes are trying for the second national championship in school history. The first came in 2004. The Penguins are trying for their fifth. They won four in the 1990’s.

Abdullah said one of the big keys for the Dukes is to stay focused and not get too caught up in the excitement of the game.

“You’re going to have some excitement. You’re going to have some anxiousness, but at the end of the day you got to realize why you’re there — it’s a business trip,” Abdullah said. “So that’s just how we need to treat it. Go out there and make sure that we’re focused on the right things. That we do soak up the moments, because it will be something that we’ll remember for a long time. But if we get the win, I think that’s something that we’ll remember even more.”

Contact staff writer Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or tkeeler@nvdaily.com