FRISCO, Texas – Youngstown State quarterback Hunter Wells had heard plenty of stories from family and friends about the glory days of Penguins football, and the four national championships won in the 1990s with Jim Tressel as their coach.
But Wells, who grew up just more than an hour from the Ohio campus, wasn’t aware of the 1999 runner-up finish in their last title game appearance until he saw a banner at their practice facility.
“No one cares if you almost win,” Wells said. “You’ve got to win.”
The Penguins (12-3) finally get their chance at another title Saturday when they play James Madison (13-1) in the FCS championship game.
For the first time in six years, North Dakota State didn’t make it from Fargo to Frisco to play for the title. James Madison won its semifinal game 27-17 over the five-time defending champion Bison in the Fargodome.
“It kind of felt like we had to go dethrone the champ,” junior quarterback Bryan Schor said. “That’s what we needed to do. We said over the summer and over spring, that if we’re going to win a national championship, it’s going to go through Fargo, North Dakota.”
But the Dukes, from the Colonial Athletic Association, know they have another game to play. They won the 2004 national title the only other time they made it this far.
“I just think that whole experience right there was probably as good of preparation as you can have for this game right here,” first-year JMU coach Mike Houston said.
Youngstown State has a six-game winning streak since a 24-3 loss at North Dakota State on Nov. 5. They advanced with a 40-38 semifinal victory at Eastern Washington in subzero temperatures. Tight end Kevin Rader drew national attention when he pinned the ball against the back of the defender for a 5-yard TD catch with 1 second left.
“We have a lot of character,” coach Bo Pelini said. “I said after that (North Dakota State) game, and I believed it, and it was. There was a lot more out there for our team.”
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