Points likely at a premium for Terriers, Penguins
(STATS) – With the three top-scoring teams in the subdivision still alive, there figures to be plenty of points in the FCS playoffs this weekend.
At Stambaugh Stadium, there should be plenty of punts.
Two of the nation's best defenses will have a lot to say about which of the subdivision's unseeded Cinderellas books a spot in the semifinals as Wofford visits Youngstown State on Saturday.
Sam Houston State, James Madison and Eastern Washington should keep scoreboards busy in the FCS quarterfinals, with the over/under for Friday night's Bearkats-Dukes showdown set at 84 1/2 in a matchup between the nation's two highest-scoring teams.
That's a cool 51 points more than Vegas expects in Youngstown, where two teams that weren't supposed to get this far will try to become the FCS final four's unlikeliest party crasher. Nineteenth-ranked Wofford (10-3) is third in the subdivision in scoring defense at 16.1 points per game, while the No. 13 Penguins (10-3) are just a tick behind at 17.7.
The Terriers have allowed a total of 17 in their last three games – none in the final 52 minutes of their 17-3 round of 16 win at The Citadel and none in their past five fourth quarters.
“I don't care if it's 3-0 or 40-39,” Youngstown State coach Bo Pelini said. “A win's a win. They're hard to come by.”
They didn't used to be in Youngstown, where the Penguins were the subdivision's most dominant program in the 1990s, but this playoff trip is the program's first since 2006. YSU made it to the semifinals that season and is on the cusp of getting back there after shocking third-seeded Jacksonville State 40-24 last weekend.
For as good as they've been defensively, the Penguins' offense has woken up in recent weeks. They threw for a season-high 315 yards against the Gamecocks but still managed to run it in three times, giving Youngstown State a remarkable 15 rushing touchdowns – along with 47.6 points and 566 yards per game – over the past three weeks. Quarterback Hunter Wells has come alive after taking over at midseason, averaging 12.87 yards per attempt on 45 throws during this outburst.
So who's to say a visit from Wofford will ultimately turn into a grinder in the trenches?
“I always tell our guys, 'you don't have a crystal ball,'” Pelini said. “You don't know what it's gonna take week to week or how it's gonna go.”
It's still probably safe to say Wofford would prefer a low-possession contest that hinges on getting some defensive stops late. In the last four of their six straight wins, the Terriers have allowed just 5.44 yards per pass attempt with eight interceptions, yielded one touchdown on the ground and stopped 68 percent of their opponents' third-down attempts.
Wofford was sixth in the FCS with 2.9 yards per carry allowed on the ground. Take away Ole Miss and the three games against fellow triple-option offenses, and the Terriers surrender 1.7 yards per tote.
“Everybody plays for one another,” defensive lineman Tyler Vaughn said. “It's 11 hats to the ball every time, and we ride together. That's been our mentality all season.
“Even in the summer, everybody knew what the situation was. We wanted to be a great defense and we wanted to dictate games and make it known that we were trying to be the best defense in the country.”
Coach Mike Ayers' team may need its defense to be great again, particularly with the uncertainty under center reaching a critical level. Junior quarterback Brandon Goodson, who began the season third on the depth chart, left against The Citadel with an ankle injury, leaving fifth-string true freshman Joseph Newman to take his place.
Newman ran 36 yards for the tiebreaking touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Goodson is considered questionable, and if he can't go and Newman gets hurt, running back Nick Colvin is the next signal caller up.
“We're used to different quarterbacks coming in,” offensive lineman Dequan Miller said. “Last year, we rotated three guys and then this year we had two guys go down. It was just the next man up. When you come into the game, you play ball.”
Pelini seems as unfazed with who to expect to be taking snaps as his opponent is.
“They're gonna run their offense, and we're preparing for their offense,” he said. “Whoever's under center is under center.”
Both Youngstown State and Wofford are unsurprisingly among the FCS leaders in time of possession, and YSU's third-down percentage (46.9) is 12th in the subdivision. Without facing much in the way of the triple option during the regular season, Pelini has had to instill one mantra into his players this week: discipline.
For star defensive linemen Avery Moss and Derek Rivers along with the rest of a Penguins defense that's used to getting after the quarterback – their 44 sacks lead the FBS – that aggressive mentality will take a back seat for at least this week.
“Everybody's gotta handle their responsibilities and have their eyes in the right places,” Pelini said. “You need 11 guys to fit it right and to do their part. … And you've gotta be physical, because they're a physical team.”
The winner faces either Richmond or No. 2 seed Eastern Washington in next week's semifinals.