Penguins riding six-game winning streak into FCS championship game

HARRISONBURG — Youngstown State University has taken a little different path to get to Saturday’s Football Championship Subdivision title game with James Madison University.

The Penguins were 6-3 after suffering a 24-3 loss to North Dakota State University on Nov. 5. Since then, the Penguins have won six straight games, including four playoff contests.

Youngstown State head coach Bo Pelini said that the loss to five-time defending champion North Dakota State was a bit of a turning point for his team.

“I think we have a lot of character on our football team,” Pelini said in a teleconference last week. “You know, I said after that (North Dakota State) game, and I believed it, and it was — there was a lot more out there for our team. I thought we needed to make some adjustments in a couple of areas that I thought got exposed in the game. And we’ve gone through a lot in the season together. You talk about a number of different quarterbacks, and we’ve faced down some adversity and been able to kind of overcome it.

“That’s a testament to the character of our kids, and believing in himself what we were doing and continuing to get better as the season went on.”

Pelini said getting better week-by-week has been the biggest part of his team’s success.

The Penguins were able to host two playoff contests due to some upsets. However, their two road wins were against No. 2 seed Eastern Washington, 40-28 in the semifinals, and No. 3 seed Jacksonville State, 40-24, in the second round.

One of the big changes during the season that helped lead to success for Youngstown State is a change at quarterback.

Junior quarterback Hunter Wells has started for the last eight games. The Penguins have used four different quarterbacks this season, but Wells has been the most efficient.

Wells has thrown for 1,443 yards and nine touchdowns. Pelini said that he’s seen a lot of growth from Wells since he became the starter.

“I think he’s a lot more comfortable in the pocket,” Pelini said. “I think he’s really made some strides there as far as really sitting in there and making some difficult throws and some difficult — he’s played at a high level. And I think we’ve got better around him. I always say, best thing for a quarterback is to play well around him. He can’t do it by himself. I think we’ve gotten better offensively, especially over the last month or so, and I think that’s helped Hunter. He’s obviously done his part very well.”

Senior running back Jody Webb is a big part of Youngstown State’s offense. He is one of the top all-purpose running backs in the FCS. He has rushed for 1,301 yards, and has also caught 27 passes for 353 yards.

The Youngstown State defense is led by senior defensive linemen Derek Rivers and Avery Moss, who have a combined 14 sacks. Both are considered NFL draft prospects.
Pelini was the head coach at the University of Nebraska from 2008-14. He was fired after the 2014 season.

He played in college at Ohio State University and is from Youngstown, Ohio, and decided to make a move back to his home by taking the Youngstown State job.

“It was the right thing for myself and my family,” Pelini said. “That was the No. 1 reason why I made the decision to come back here to Youngstown State and knowing Youngstown and the area. Really, that’s had a big impact on my life, and I believe I’ve had a lot of opportunities because of the background I’ve had and growing up here and all the things that have gone along with it. And so there was kind of a unique opportunity to come back here and give back a little bit.”

Youngstown State won four FCS titles under former coach Jim Tressel in the 1990’s. Tressel, also a former Ohio State University coach, is now the university president.

In only his second year as head coach, Pelini said that he feels like the culture that he wanted to create is taking form and has helped lead to the success the team has had.

“I believe deeply in building a culture and having a culture of accountability, of hard work, of how you go about your business,” Pelini said. “I think our kids have learned. I don’t think we’re exactly where I want to be yet. I think that’s always a work-in-progress, but it’s moving in the right direction.

“That’s something you’ve got to work hard at each and every day, building your program. I think that we’ve done that well.”

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