James Madison rode into the FCS National Championship Game with an insane amount of momentum. The highest-scoring team in the nation, the Dukes entered fresh off a win over five-time defending champion North Dakota State. While the offense did enough, it was the JMU defense that showed out in a 28-14 victory over Youngstown State to win the school’s second national title. In what some would consider a surprise, the James Madison domination over Youngstown State came from the Dukes’ defense, not their offense.
Bo Pelini’s Youngstown State team, looking for the program’s fifth championship, struggled from the opening snap. After a three-and-out with zero yards gained to start the day, Mark Schuler’s punt was blocked by JMU’s Justin Wellons, setting up an easy Dukes touchdown two plays later. Quarterback Bryan Schor padded that lead with his second touchdown pass of the quarter one drive later. That 14-point first-quarter deficit was too much for the Penguins to overcome.
The Dukes scored again in the second quarter, capping an eight-play drive with a Khalid Abdullah touchdown run. Youngstown State got on the board late in the first half, taking advantage of a terrible James Madison punt. Quarterback Hunter Wells, who struggled throughout the day, connected with Shane Kuhn for YSU’s lone score.
Scoring came at a premium in the second half. After Wells threw an interception on Youngstown State’s first drive of the half, Abdullah finished a six-play drive with another touchdown run, extending the lead to 21 points. James Madison coasted offensively and relied on their defense to close out the game. Youngstown State, not known for its offensive prowess, struggled to move the ball all day against the JMU defense. The Penguins added a garbage-time touchdown, but it was too little, too late for Bo Pelini’s squad.
Turnovers were backbreaking miscues for the Penguins on Saturday. Wells’ third-quarter interception led to the game’s ultimate score. In the first and third quarters, two fumbles ended promising drives prematurely.
Schor didn’t put up flashy numbers for James Madison, but played as efficiently as advertised. He threw just 12 passes, completing seven of them, including two touchdowns in the first half. His 191.7 passer efficiency rating was more than enough to lead the Dukes’ offense. Abdullah added 101 yards on the ground, along with his two touchdowns, breaking three school records in the process: most rushing touchdowns in a single season, most rushing touchdowns in a career and most rushing yards in a single season.
MOST OUTSTANDING PLAYER
The Youngstown State offense didn’t have any answer for the James Madison defense in the title game. Wells threw two touchdown passes while averaging just 5.6 yards per attempt, with one score coming when the game was decidedly over. The running game was nonexistent for the Penguins, netting just 21 yards on 31 attempts for the game. YSU averaged just 3.7 yards per play against JMU’s defense.
While the loss is crushing for Youngstown State, it could be the sign of a brighter future for the program. After 10 straight years without a playoff appearance, this was an important step for the Penguins. The keys going forward for the team must be stability and consistency. A large factor in those aforementioned traits is the situation Bo Pelini finds himself in. It will be easier for the team to keep building if their head coach sticks around, of course. After an impressive season in Youngstown and with several coaching openings in FBS, however, it wouldn’t be surprising if Pelini receives a couple calls this offseason. Regardless, this was an impressive season for YSU, one which shouldn’t be forgotten in spite of the loss.
For James Madison, this is the peak of coach Mark Houston’s meteoric rise. Houston took the JMU job after an impressive stint at The Citadel, then took the Dukes to a national title in his first season with the team. With a dominant offense and potentially suffocating defense, this is likely the start of a strong era at the top of FCS for James Madison. However, as is the case with Pelini at Youngstown State, Houston remaining with the program is key. If the Dukes can avoid losing their coach to a bigger program, more great things are coming for James Madison.