EWU, Youngstown to clash in FCS semis
(STATS) - Coach Beau Baldwin has been praising third-ranked Eastern Washington's defense this season but it's been overshadowed by a prolific offense fueled by Gage Gubrud and Cooper Kupp.
It's hard to overlook what it's doing in the FCS playoffs.
One of the best defenses of the postseason and one of the best defenses of the regular season will be on the same field Saturday, though No. 13 Youngstown State may have some players suspended as it looks to keep the high-flying Eagles in check at a frigid Roos Field in the FCS national semifinal.
Eastern Washington's offense has received significant attention - and for good reason. The Eagles (12-1) are first in the FCS in passing yards (403.4), second in total offense (534.7), third in scoring (42.7) and are led by two of the top three vote-getters for the 2016 STATS FCS Walter Payton Award in Gubrud and Kupp. The two were also both named the Big Sky's Co-Offensive Player of the Year in leading EWU to a conference title and No. 2 seed for the playoffs.
The defense, however, has also been instrumental to the team's success after being a major liability a year ago and has stepped up its play in two playoff games.
After allowing season lows in yards (244) and points in a 31-14 second-round win over Central Arkansas, the defense was even better in last Saturday's 38-0 quarterfinal victory over Richmond. The Eagles had six sacks, forced five turnovers and permitted just 205 yards in recording their first shutout since 2009.
"You're always growing, and especially when it's only year two of a new defensive coordinator (Jeff Schmedding), you feel like you should be continuing to grow at this point," Baldwin said. "I also think there is something to the work ethic they carried through the season, a work ethic in the weight room and health-wise to keep themselves in the right position to have success late in the year. It's a number of factors that have helped lead us to this spot."
The defense is vastly improved from a year ago, when it was tied for 118th in the FCS in scoring (39.5 points per game). This year, they're allowing an average of 25.5 and four EWU defensive players - linebacker Miquiyah Zamora, safety Zach Bruce, end Samson Ebukam and tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli - were named to the All-Big Sky first team.
The unseeded Penguins (11-3), in the playoffs for the first time since reaching the 2006 semifinals, are also no slouch defensively, ranking seventh in the FCS in points (18.1) and 11th in total yards (313.5). They had three from that unit named to the All-Missouri Valley Football Conference first team in ends Derek Rivers and Avery Moss and safety LeRoy Alexander.
The unit will face a much different look than in last Saturday's 30-23 double-overtime win over Wofford. The run-oriented Terriers attempted all of three passes - a number the Eagles may reach on their first three offensive snaps.
Gubrud leads the FCS with 537 attempts and 4,822 passing yards, is second with 45 touchdowns and third in completion percentage at 68.5. The sophomore is also first in the division in total offense with 5,380 yards.
He has three receivers that have eclipsed 1,000 yards led by Kupp, who is first in the FCS in yards (1,520), second in receptions (107) and third in TDs (15). The 2015 STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year ranks first in Division I history in receptions (418), receiving yards (6,284) and touchdown receptions (71).
The best receiving corps in the FCS also includes fellow seniors Shaq Hill (75 catches, 1,112 yards, 16 TDs) and Kendrick Bourne (76, 1,087, 6).
"Our defense has been challenged this way before against a number of teams that throw the ball and spread you out," YSU coach Bo Pelini said. " ... These guys post some different challenges here and there and are unique in certain ways. It's about getting a good plan together."
The Penguins may catch a bit of a break as the weather could dictate Gubrud's ability to throw. The forecast in Cheney is a high of 7 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
"We're going to approach it that they can run their offense," Pelini said, "and plan B is if it becomes really difficult out there, what are our answers then if it becomes more of a running situation."
Ideally, the Penguins will be at full strength for facing an offense like the Eagles' but they could be without some key contributors.
The school hasn't confirmed a report that some YSU players will be suspended after testing positive for an unidentified substance following the team's second-round win over Jacksonville State. It's also uncertain if Martin Ruiz will face any more punishment after his arrest last week on a gun charge. He spent a night in jail and only got in for one play in the second half against Wofford.
Ruiz (1,153) and Jody Webb (1,200) are the only 1,000-yard runners in the MVFC. Ruiz also tops the MVFC with 12 rushing touchdowns and Webb is second in the league with an average of 6.3 yards per carry.
Hunter Wells threw a season-high three touchdown passes last week as Youngstown State was able to overcome three missed field goals. The junior quarterback was playing in his seventh game and the Penguins are averaging 38.8 points during a five-game winning streak since losing at North Dakota State.
The Eagles' lone loss came to the top-seeded Bison, falling 50-44 in overtime. The teams have one other common opponent, as EWU and Youngstown each beat Northern Iowa by four points.
The only other time YSU and EWU met was in the 1997 semifinals, when the Jim Tressel-led Penguins won 25-14 and would win the FCS championship a week later.
The winner will face either No. 4 North Dakota State or fifth-ranked James Madison in the FCS national championship in Frisco, Texas on Jan. 6.