January 02, 2017

(STATS) - Considering the way they have played with resolve and overcome adversity, Youngstown State coach Bo Pelini feels his Penguins have made the most significant change over the entire season which ends Saturday with the NCAA Division I FCS Championship Game.

Mike Houston, his counterpart on fourth-seeded James Madison, believes Youngstown State changed the most midway through the season after Pelini restored junior quarterback Hunter Wells to the starting role. Wells had held it in each of the two previous seasons, so what was old became new again with the Penguins.

"Well, we've watched the entire season, and I think that that was probably the turning point," Houston said. "I think that's probably, you know, just a very experienced coaching move there in making a change when you knew you had to. Because I think that there was a lot of inconsistency and the offense was not performing at a real high level at that point."

Unseeded Youngstown State (12-3) is the surprising championship qualifier, while CAA champion James Madison (13-1) isn't so surprising, although it had to knock off North Dakota State's FCS dynasty in the semifinals to reach the final at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.

Youngstown State was 5-2 when Wells became the starter again on Oct. 29, but the Penguins surely had some nervous vibes because they had collapsed down the stretch in the three previous seasons to keep alive an FCS playoff drought that started in 2006. The offense had hit season lows while rallying in the fourth quarter to wins over Illinois State and Northern Iowa and then while dropping from first place in the Missouri Valley Football Conference with a loss at South Dakota State.

Enter, or re-enter, Wells.

He had lost the starting job to senior Ricky Davis in training camp and both Davis and Trent Hosick were injured when the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Ohio native returned to the lineup for his 19th career start.

Although Wells didn't enjoy a fast start, offensive improvement has followed the Penguins, who are 7-1 since the change. They're putting up six more points per game than in the first half of the season, had a program-record 747 offensive yards against Missouri State to clinch a playoff bid and have won four straight playoff games while averaging 467.5 yards - up nearly 36 yards over the team's average. They haven't been below 30 points in five straight games.

"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 … 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."

Wells has completed 107 of 169 passes (63.3 percent) for 1,443 yards and nine touchdowns with only four interceptions. The team's three other quarterbacks have a 53.4 completion percent with more interceptions (nine) than touchdown passes (seven).

Houston points to the Penguins' offensive consistency deriving from Wells' experience and leadership. Wells helped lead come-from-behind wins over Wofford in the national quarterfinals and Eastern Washington in the semifinals.

"He does not put the ball in harm's way," Houston said. "He runs the offense efficiently. He makes good decisions in the passing game."

Player suspensions have hurt both teams in the playoffs, with Youngstown State losing some key players in the skills positions. Still, the Penguins have a strong 1-2 running punch of Jody Webb and Tevin McCaster to take pressure off Wells.

Pelini said he's told his players a couple times that their season is not about where they started, it's about where they finish. It may have more meaning for Wells than any player.

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