In an era where versatility out of the backfield is critical at every level of football, this year’s FCS championship between Youngstown State and James Madison gives a perfect look at two of the subdivision’s best going head to head.
YSU’s Jody Webb and JMU’s Khalid Abdullah are two senior tailbacks who both headline physical offenses that are primed to pound the ball on the ground with frigid temperatures on deck for Saturday’s 11 a.m. CT kickoff in Frisco, Texas.
Abdullah is the nation’s leader in rushing touchdowns with 20 to go along with 1,708 yards on the ground. He’s crossed the 100-yard barrier 10 times this season and has added three touchdown receptions to his ledger.
One of those scores came last time out in the semifinals when the Dukes shocked five-time defending champion North Dakota State in Fargo, North Dakota. Abdullah accounted for 235 offensive yards, including a 10-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter to spot JMU an early 17-0 lead.
“The NDSU game was great. It gave me an opportunity to play on the biggest stage at that point of time – this game [against YSU] will be the biggest stage now,” Abdullah said at Thursday’s FCS Championship Media Day. “It was definitely something I could attribute to my teammates, I just went out and did my job.”
Meanwhile, for YSU, Webb’s offensive production has been unmatched these playoffs.
The Toledo native has rushed for 100 yards in each of his last six outings – including all four playoff games – and has logged 1,301 rushing yards over the course of the season.
But that’s far from the only way Webb contributes to the Penguins’ suddenly hot offense that’s seen nearly a two-touchdown jump per game this postseason.
Webb doubles as a dependable pass-catching option out of the backfield with 26 receptions this year and a 12.6 yards per reception clip. Completing his arsenal as a triple threat, Webb also handles most of YSU’s kick return duties, often setting the Penguins up favorably with a 23.9 yards per return average.
In total, Webb has accumulated 2,059 all-purpose yards this year, nearly 600 more than his previous high mark he set last season. According to Webb, he treasures his increased role on offense.
“I’m just doing whatever I need to do to make the team successful,” Webb said. “It’s something I embrace – I enjoy getting the ball and giving our team great field position. It’s all about understanding what it takes to make your team successful.”
Both Webb and Abdullah have taken their games to new levels this season in their last years of eligibility. Neither started more than five games in a season prior to 2016 when they each became feature backs for their respective teams.
Abdullah picked up his first 1,000-yard season this year and had 78 more carries as part of his increased role for the second-highest scoring offense in the FCS. He credits patience, not only in finding running lanes but also in waiting for a chance to shine after being passed over by FBS programs, to his development.
“Patience [is the key]. Just waiting on my time and waiting for the right moments, knowing that the stars would align,” Abdullah said. “So the fact that I’ve been accomplishing some of the goals I’ve had and to be able to go out here and win big with my team, that’s the most important thing.”
For Webb, he points to his confidence in the offensive line and others on the Penguins offensive unit in helping him grow as a top offensive threat and a respected senior leader in the locker room.
“Just doing my job. Coach Bo [Pelini] stresses just playing your part and trusting the guy next to you,” Webb said. “I feel like my team has a lot of faith in me, and I have a lot of faith in my brothers. So I think just playing my role.”
JMU coach Mike Houston is more than aware of Webb’s game-breaking ability and points to limiting him as a key for the Dukes defense.
“The biggest thing with [Webb] is trying to keep him from getting to the second level. He's such an explosive player that we can't let him get out in space,” Houston said at Friday’s press conference. “We have to keep him contained up, don't give him the creases, play very sound, and that way it will keep him from getting out.”
Webb called JMU’s defense “gap sound” but maintains that YSU will stick to what it does best on offense, which is setting the tone by running the ball with him and Tevin McCaster. That duo combined for 255 yards on the ground in the semifinals against Eastern Washington.
On the other side, Abdullah goes against a YSU defensive unit that’s 24th in the FCS against the run and has held opponents to just 10 rushing touchdowns this season.
Abdullah sees YSU’s physicality up front as yet another challenge that he embraces, similar to what he saw against NDSU’s talented front seven in the semifinals.
“Just from looking on film, they’re definitely one of the most physical teams,” Abdullah said. “They have guys that are NFL-ready cats and are making plays on the ball. They’re definitely a formidable opponent and we’ll have to be on our A-game to come out with the win.”
With both star tailbacks’ impressive college careers winding down in Frisco this Saturday, both have taken some time to reflect on their similar paths to success and the development of their respective programs.
Now both are focused on the perfect ending to this journey – a national championship.
“What better a way to end your college career?” Webb said. “A lot of us have been here a long time, including the times we weren’t so good. This is our team, we bought in and like I said, what a better way to end it?”
“Everything I’ve worked for, every dream and ambition I’ve had coming into college football is coming to fruition,” Abdullah said. “To be able to experience this with my brothers, my coaches, my teammates, the institution and JMU nation, it’s definitely something I will remember for the rest of my life and something I’ll hold on to forever.”