They both share the same school colors – red and white – but it’s possible Eastern Washington and Youngstown State have switched into each other’s uniforms.
Heading into their FCS semifinal at Eastern Washington on Saturday, the No. 2-seeded Eagles (12-1) are playing as good as ever defensively and the visiting Penguins (11-3) are surging offensively. It’s the opposite of how they so often win games.
Youngstown State still ranks seventh in the FCS in points allowed per game (18.1), but the offense is averaging 43.3 points over the last four games – double what it was for the Missouri Valley Football Conference squad prior to that. In contrast, high-flying Eastern Washington ranks third nationally in points per game (42.7), but the defense’s seven lowest point totals of the season have come in the last seven games, including last Saturday’s shutout of Richmond that was the Big Sky Conference program’s first in 102 games.
The winner will play either No. 4 seed James Madison (12-1) or No. 1 seed North Dakota State (12-1) in the championship game Jan. 7 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
FCS Semifinal: Youngstown State (11-3) at No. 2 seed Eastern Washington (12-1)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 17 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: Roos Field (Cheney, Wash.)
TV Channel: ESPNU
Three Things to Watch
1. Possible Youngstown State suspensions
Are they or aren’t they? Suspended, that is. Various reports say some Youngstown State players, including three with significant roles, are suspended for this game for testing positive for an unidentified substance following the team’s second-round win over Jacksonville State on Dec. 3. Head coach Bo Pelini hasn’t confirmed or denied the reports, and the athletic department released a projected starting lineup that doesn’t indicate any changes. It probably goes without saying, but anything less than an intact lineup would seriously hurt any team at this point in the season. That’s especially the case for the visiting Penguins looking to pull off yet another upset on someone else’s turf.
2. Roos Field's nickname is The Inferno? Say what?
Brrr, the weather won’t be a match for Eastern Washington’s famed red turf. It’s not as though the Eagles are hosting, say, Florida A&M, but they have an edge this week with practicing in the Pacific Northwest. This will be the coldest game in Eastern Washington history, with the high in Cheney on Saturday expected to be under 5 degrees. Youngstown State’s nickname is the Penguins and their Stambaugh Stadium is known as the Ice Castle, but Ohio weather isn’t as harsh as Washington weather. Despite cold temperatures and a slick field, the wind was calm during the Eagles’ quarterfinal-round win over Richmond. With mostly a passing game on offense, they’re hoping for more of the same.
3. Kupp magic runneth over
While catching the ball is where Eastern Washington senior wide receiver Cooper Kupp does most of his damage, it’s not the only place. He ranks first in Division I history in receptions (418), receiving yards (6,284) and touchdown receptions (71), yet he’s an all-around threat – dangerous on punt returns, perhaps on a fly sweep and clearly on trick plays in which he’s throwing the ball (he’s 7-for-9 with four touchdown passes in his career). His dominance in the biggest games is legendary, and with his team two wins away from a national championship, he’s likely primed to rise to the occasion.
If Youngstown State is missing players because of NCAA suspensions, Eastern Washington will gain a huge advantage. The Eagles may not even need one because they have a quarterback, sophomore Gage Gubrud, who is the FCS leader in passing yards (4,807) and total yards of offense (5,365), and he’s accounted for 50 touchdowns. He’s relentless in throwing to three 1,000-yard receivers in Kupp, Shaq Hill and Kendrick Bourne, and mobile enough to escape Youngstown State’s excellent defensive ends, Derek Rivers and Avery Moss.
The Penguins’ hopes rest with their running game, which averages 257.1 yards on the ground and boasts a red-hot running back in Jody Webb. The Penguins are more physical at the line of scrimmage and need to command that factor.
Still, it's a concern that the rough week will catch up to Youngstown State. Eastern Washington, which opened the season by beating Washington State and has only lost in overtime at five-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State, could demoralize the Penguins by jumping out to an early lead.
Prediction: Eastern Washington 28, Youngstown State 19
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo by Eastern Washington University Athletics)