Youngstown State slips past EWU to reach FCS final

Publish date:

(STATS) - It was clutch, if not miraculous, and enough to get Youngstown State back to a place it used to go to frequently:

The FCS national championship game.

Tight end Kevin Rader caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Hunter Wells with 1 second remaining to lift Youngstown State to a 40-38 victory over No. 2 seed Eastern Washington in a national semifinal Saturday at frigid Roos Field in Cheney, Washington.

The Penguins (12-3) will play No. 4 seed James Madison (13-1) in the national final Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas. Although they are appearing in the playoffs for the first time in 10 years, their program won four FCS (then NCAA Division I-AA) national titles in the 1990s and has been the runner-up twice.

The winning drive came after Eastern Washington (12-2) took a 38-34 lead on wide receiver Shaq Hill's 1-yard run with 4:24 left.

Following a squib kick by Eastern Washington, the Penguins drove 58 yards on 11 plays. Rader caught his winning touchdown in the rear of the Eagles' end zone when he wrapped his right arm around the back of linebacker Ketner Kupp and secured the football on the defender's back with his feet on the ground before he was pushed out of bounds.

"They played it very well, that linebacker walled me off. He played it pretty much perfect," Rader said. "I saw the ball in the air and I made the play on it."

"I didn't have a good look at it," YSU second-year coach Bo Pelini said. "All I could hear is the guys right next to me going, 'He caught it, he caught it, he caught it.'"

An official's review of the play confirmed the touchdown. Ahead 40-38, the Penguins took a knee on the extra point to avoid risking a blocked kick that Eastern Washington could return for two points. On the ensuing kickoff, the Eagles went through a number of laterals before the Penguins downed Cooper Kupp with the ball to end the game.

Tevin McCaster rushed for 154 yards and three touchdowns and the Penguins won despite having as much as a two-touchdown deficit (24-10) in the second quarter.

The Penguins also overcame a tumultuous week in which there were reports of key players being suspended for the semifinal because of positive NCAA drug tests following the team's second-round win over Jacksonville State on Dec. 3.

While Pelini and school administrators did not confirm or deny the suspensions during the week, the Penguins played without second-leading rusher Martin Ruiz; wide receiver Darien Townsend, who leads the team in receiving yards; and safeties Jameel Smith and LeRoy Alexander, their No. 2 and 3 tacklers, respectively.

The game-time temperature was 4 degrees with the wind-chill factor and it eventually dipped below 0. Eastern Washington quarterback Gage Gubrud passed for 353 yards and three touchdowns and Cooper Kupp had 10 receptions for 180 and two TDs, but a lot of it was in the first half. The Penguins' running game grew more effective in the second half, with Jody Webb also finishing with 101 of their 263 yards on the ground.

"It was a heck of a football game. A real crazy way to end it," Pelini said. "We had guys making plays all night, they had guys making plays in tough conditions."