Styles clash with YSU-Samford

YOUNGSTOWN — Two teams going in opposite directions with completely different ways of winning find out if either of those factors mean anything in the playoffs.

Run-heavy Youngstown State, coming off a record performance, faces the pass-first (and second and third) Samford Bulldogs in the first round of the FCS playoffs at 5 p.m. Saturday at Stambaugh Stadium.

The 13th-ranked Penguins (8-3), who won two straight to earn a trip to the playoffs, enter the postseason following a 65-20 trouncing of Missouri State. Samford (7-4) lost two of its last three games, including a heartbreaking, last-second defeat to unranked East Tennessee State in the final game of the regular season.

While that may paint a pretty picture for a YSU team gaining steam at the right time, players and coaches said numbers and trends don’t mean much at this point.

“It’s a whole new season,” senior safety LeRoy Alexander said. “You’re 0-0. You can’t come out and have any mental lapses or anything like that, so moving forward, we’ve just to be on our game.”

That’s especially important for Alexander and the rest of the secondary. YSU featured one of the top pass defenses in the country last year and then again early in the 2016 season, but the Penguins have had some issues as of late. Southern Illinois threw for 366 yards two weeks ago at Stambaugh Stadium, and lowly Missouri State passed for 207 yards and two TDs in the final game of the regular season.

The problems for YSU are easily correctable, according to Alexander. It’s not an issue of lacking talent. The miscues stemmed from fundamentals.

“We’ve just got to fix our technique on the outside. We’ve got to fix our eyes as safeties,” said Alexander of watching the right player to make a read. “(Defensive backs), we’ve got to trigger faster when we see our keys. And also, playing the ball downfield. We missed an opportunity (against Missouri State) to get an interception on a deep ball. Actually, two opportunities, so we’ve go to capitalize on those opportunities in the playoffs.”

YSU coach Bo Pelini is on the same page. He didn’t sound the least bit worried about a secondary that, overall, allowed a league-low 186 yards passing per game.

“We’ve just got to get more detailed,” Pelini said. “There were a couple things that happened that shouldn’t have happened (in the last two weeks). We’ll be all right there. I have a lot of confidence in what we can do.”

That’s good because the Bulldogs come in averaging 450.7 yards of offense per game — 347 through the air. Their quarterback, Devlin Hodges, has thrown 33 touchdowns and just eight interceptions, and wide receiver Karel Hamilton has an FCS-best 100 receptions. Two other receivers have more than 50 catches and eight players overall have caught at least one touchdown. In comparison, YSU’s top receiver has 23 receptions, which would be seventh best for the Bulldogs.

The Penguins, on the other hand, deploy a bruising rushing attack behind a giant offensive line. YSU has almost three times as many rushing yards as SU and just rolled up 575 rushing yards and seven TDs against Missouri State last week.

The differing styles could favor the Penguins in what looks to be a cold and windy day in Youngstown.

“It’s going to be a cold one as usual,” Alexander said, “but it’s nothing we can’t handle.”

It’ll be interesting to see if Samford can say the same.

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