Samford at YSU: Scouting Report

Special to Tribune Chronicle
YSU’s leading rusher, Martin Ruiz, will be a key factor in the Penguins' first playoff game in 10 years.

Special to Tribune Chronicle YSU’s leading rusher, Martin Ruiz, will be a key factor in the Penguins' first playoff game in 10 years.

It’s been a long decade of playoff-less football for Youngstown State University and its fans. That string ends today.

The Penguins welcome Samford to Stambaugh Stadium in the first round of the FCS Playoffs. The winner faces third-seeded Jacksonville State next week on the road.

The teams come into the game with vastly different styles and trending in opposite directions. The fast-paced Bulldogs (7-4), who have lost three of their last four, throw the ball more than any team in the FCS.

Run-heavy YSU (8-3) won its final two games, rushing for a school-record 575 yards in its season finale. The Penguins 2,866 rushing yards are the second most in the FCS.

Something’s got to give in a major contrast of styles.

QUARTERBACKS

YSU — Hunter Wells is starting to look more like the quarterback who showed enormous potential while earning the starting job as a true freshman rather than the one who lost that spot and looked scared to make a mistake to start this season. He completed 15-of-16 passes against Missouri State, including a touchdown and zero interceptions. The Penguins utilized quick, short throws to get their athletes in space (Wells’ longest completion was 28 yards), and that may again be the strategy on what looks to be a cold, blustery day in Youngstown. Wells be called upon to make some plays as Samford will likely stack the box to slow YSU’s run game.

SU — Sophomore Devlin Hodges has been one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the FCS this year, completing 342-of-479 passes for 3,716 yards, 33 TDs and eight interceptions. He’s a dual threat as well, running for more than 200 yards and four TDs. If he’s able to find a rhythm early on, it could be long day for YSU, which needs to pressure the young QB.

EDGE — SU

RUNNING BACKS

YSU — The Penguins put on a show never before seen by a YSU team, rushing for a school-record 575 yards and scoring seven TDs against the Bears last week. After a slow start to the season, the thunder and lightning tandem of Martin Ruiz (1,008 yards, 10 TDs) and Jody Webb (673 yards, two TDs) is back with a vengeance. Ruiz is an extremely versatile player who can run between the tackles, around the edge or catch the ball out of the backfield. Webb is one of the fastest players on the team and has the elusiveness to score a touchdown from anywhere on the field. Behind a big, strong offensive line, their workload should be heavy – and increase as the game wears on..

SU — The Bulldogs’ main back is K’rondis Larry, a 5-foot-6, 150-pound scat back with great speed and agility. He’s only rushed for 470 yards and two TDs, but he’s averaging 5.8 yards per rush. Justin Curry (5-10, 205) and Roland Adams (5-10, 195) are more power backs.

EDGE — YSU

RECEIVERS

YSU — Baby steps have been taken at the receiving corps, where inconsistencies and a rotating door of QBs have caused year-long problems. Roles seem to finally be established. Darien Townsend has been the most consistent threat. The Youngstown Christian graduate has 23 receptions for 331 yards and three TDs. Alvin Bailey (22 grabs, 272 yards) leads YSU with four TD catches. Damoun Patterson is the main deep threat, with a 19.6 yards-per-catch average.

SU — The receiving corps is deep and talented for SU, led by senior Karel Hamilton. The 6-1, 200-pound senior has an FCS-best 100 catches. He can catch quick passes and turn them into huge gains or beat DBs down the field on long throws. Kelvin McKnight (59 grabs, 752 yards) and Emmanuel Obajimi (54, 622) are two other threats. Overall, the Bulldogs have six players with at least 20 catches.

EDGE — SU

OFFENSIVE LINE

YSU — Arguably the strength of the offense (literally and figuratively), the line was phenomenal last week – plowing through the Bears in the run game and not yielding a sack in the pass game. They’ll face a tough test this week as several players have shown high praise for the Bulldogs front four, especially Samford sack leader Ahmad Gooden. The main focus will be the run game though. If YSU can earn a consistent push at point of attack, the offense might keep this roll going.

SU — Samford has given up 25 sacks, which isn’t bad considering how often they throw the ball. The Bulldogs only brought back one starter, but it’s obvious this unit has gelled. The line will be tested by the nation’s top pass-rush today.

EDGE — YSU

DEFENSIVE LINE

YSU — Lost in the euphoria of demolishing Missouri State and advancing to the playoffs was a potential devastating injury to defensive end Avery Moss. He left the game with what appeared to be an ankle injury and didn’t return. Moss, who’s tied for the team lead in sacks (10) and is fifth in tackles (42), has arguably been YSU’s best defensive player this year, which is saying a lot considering fellow defensive end Derek Rivers is an All-American. Those two need to provide a consistent pass rush against one of the nation’s best passing teams.

SU — SU is talented and experienced on the line. Sophomore Ahmad Gooden has a team-high seven sacks and 14 tackles-for-loss. He’s powerful and athletic at defensive end. Tackle Jared Holloway adds 3.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles-for-loss. Roosevelt Donaldson is another force in the middle with 14 TFLs and 4.5 sacks. It’s a deep group as well that can rotate several players.

EDGE — YSU

LINEBACKERS

YSU — Some big news broke Wednesday as linebacker Lee Wright, YSU’s leading tackler in 2015, was cleared to play after being suspended prior to the season. He pleaded no contest to improperly handling a gun in a motor vehicle in August and was suspended by a YSU hearing panel. He was allowed to practice with the team, and YSU coach Bo Pelini said he will play today. Sophomore Armand Dellovade is YSU’s leading tackler (74) and is third in tackles for loss (8.5).

SU — Shaheed Salmon leads the linebackers with 88 tackles (second best on SU),13 TFLs, one interception and seven pass break-ups.Deion Pierre has been solid as well, with 66 tackles. The Bulldogs have had their ups and down against the run, allowing an average of 204 yards rushing per game. They’ve also yielded 20 rushing TDs.

EDGE — YSU

SECONDARY

YSU — The Penguins’ secondary has faced some impressive offenses this year, but this is probably its biggest test. Pelini admitted YSU hasn’t faced a team that plays at the rapid pace of SU. Getting the defensive calls and being ready in matter of seconds isn’t easy. The Bulldogs like to use quick, wide receiver screens to pull the safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, and then attack with a vertical pass. A senior-laden group led by safety LeRoy Alexander, who has a team-high three interceptions and is third with 67 tackles, needs to be on its game today.

SU — Samford’s secondary has a star in senior safety Jamerson Blount. The senior is a returning all-conference player who leads SU with 90 tackles. Corner Omari Williams is having a great year as well, leading the Bulldogs with four interceptions and 14 pass break-ups. He’s also sixth best on SU with 63 tackles. Samford is a bit more inexperienced at the other corner, with a redshirt freshman in Jamond Glass starting.

EDGE — Even

SPECIALISTS

YSU — Place-kicker Zak Kennedy could return today from a thigh injury after missing the last two games. If he doesn’t, the kicking game is definitely a concern. Nate Needham was 0-for-3 as Kennedy’s replacement and also missed an extra point, and while Connor McFadden was 1-for-1 after taking over for Needham, that one was just 23 yards. Darian Townsend has shown he can be a difference-maker returning punts. He led the MVFC with by averaging 14.3 yards per return and had a 79-yard game-winning TD against Indiana State.

SU — Reece Everett has made 11-of-17 field goals (a long of 51), but now has to deal with swirling winds in Youngstown. Punter Austin Barnard averages 42.6 yards per kick. SU has not returned or given up a return for a TD this year.

EDGE — Even

PREDICTION

A big key to this game is who can consistently impose its style. If Samford gets going offensively, YSU could have problems matching its scoring, but if the Bulldogs endure similar struggles as last week (122 passing yards, 14 completions), it could be a long, cold day for SU in an environment they’re not used to.

The Penguins need to force a lot of three-and-outs and finish off drives in the red zone, which has been a problem. If YSU plays to its potential, it should be on to Round 2.

YSU, 21-17.

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