Before he made one of the most famous throws of this year’s college football season — one that landed him on ESPN and sent Youngstown State to the FCS national championship game — Hunter Wells was a fourth-string quarterback running the scout team offense.
It was a tough spot for a junior who entered the season a starter in his last 17 college games and played 40 high school games at Fairless.
“He handled the situation this year really well,” said YSU offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery. “He could have easily just tanked it and not shown up, or shown up but not have his heart in it. But he was a leader and he took some pride in it. He realized he was going to have to go out every day and make the best of it.”
When injuries decimated YSU’s depth at quarterback, Wells got another chance, winning three of the final four regular season games before leading the Penguins to four straight playoff victories. The last one was the craziest, as Wells hit tight end Kevin Rader for a 6-yard touchdown with one second remaining in a 40-38 win at Eastern Washington in the national semifinals to advance YSU to Saturday's title game.
Rader pinned the pass to the back of linebacker Ketner Kupp and held on even after DB Zach Bruce drilled him to the ground, where he landed on top of Kupp. The play held up under review and sent YSU to its first national championship game since 1999, when Jim Tressel was still the coach. It was also featured on ESPN’s Top 10 plays that night alongside Wells’ postgame interview.
“It just blew up," Wells said. "It was unbelievable seeing myself on ESPN and seeing people talk about us on ESPN.”
That continued when Wells came back home over Christmas break.
“I got the same questions from every person I talked to,” said Wells, who holds Stark County’s career passing record (8,344 yards). “How was the catch? What was it like? How sweet is it that you’re playing for a national championship?
“Back home, everyone was excited for me and I can’t thank them enough for the constant support.”
Although Wells had a shaky 2015 — the Penguins finished 5-6 to miss the playoffs for the ninth straight season — he has played well over the past two months. During YSU’s six-game winning streak, he has completed 77 of 117 passes (66 percent) for 1,130 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception, as the Penguins take a 12-3 record into the title game.
“He struggled at first (this season) because he was a little rusty, but he’s played well over his last six games,” said Montgomery, a former North Carolina State quarterback whose son, Tanner, was Green High School’s starting quarterback in 2015. “Last year, people looked at it and didn’t think he had played as well as he did the year before — and probably statistically he didn’t — but that was a combination of things. We were really banged up up front and our receivers weren’t consistent. They dropped a lot of balls. He didn’t play as well as he could have, but our offense as a whole didn’t play that well.”
This year is a different story. The Penguins have scored at least 30 points in each of the last five games — including a 65-point game in the regular season finale — and Montgomery believes Wells used his time on the sideline to become a better quarterback.
“He matured a lot,” he said. “He’s a guy who played a lot as a freshman and just sitting back and seeing the whole process helped him. “
The Penguins are in the playoffs for just the second time since Tressel left for Ohio State after the 2000 season — YSU lost to eventual champion Appalachian State in the 2006 semifinals — and in just the second season under Youngstown native Bo Pelini, who was fired by Nebraska after the 2014 season. They’ll meet James Madison (13-1) in Frisco, Texas, at noon, Saturday. ESPN2 will televise the game.
The Dukes, who are averaging 48 points per game, knocked off five-time defending national champion North Dakota State 27-17 in the semifinals. They’re playing for their first national championship since 2004, while YSU will try to win its fifth overall and first since 1997.
“If you had told me four months ago that we’d be playing in the national championship game, I’d have told you you were crazy,” Wells said. “Usually by this time of the season, I’m sitting home and wishing I was still playing football. It’s really cool to be practicing right now and to be playing into January. A lot of people would love to have this opportunity and I feel very blessed.”
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