Twenty-five years ago, the Youngstown State University football team captured its fourth national championship with a 10-9 win over McNeese State at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga, Tenn., to cap the 1997 season.
Ten years before that historic championship, which was the lowest-scoring national championship game in Division I-AA history, the Penguins became the first Division I team in school history to win a conference championship. The team posted a 5-1 Ohio Valley Conference mark, shared the conference title with Eastern Kentucky, and advanced to the Division I-AA playoffs for the first time in school history.
On Saturday, YSU honored both teams during halftime of its matchup with North Dakota.
“The best part of this is you see their families, the men they’ve become, the husbands they’ve become, the fathers, what they are doing professionally, and that beats it all,” said university President Jim Tressel, who was the head coach of both teams and led YSU to 10 playoff appearances and four national championships between 1986 and 2000.
Tressel, who recently announced that he’ll retire in February, also had the opportunity to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Ohio State’s 2003 national championship earlier this season in Columbus.
Members from both teams gathered Friday night and shared memories with former teammates before coming together for a tailgate ahead of the game at Stambaugh Stadium on Saturday evening, which was YSU’s lone night home game of the season.
Former offensive tackle Matt Hogg, who was a senior captain during Youngstown’s 1997 title run and also was a part of the 1993 and 1994 national championship teams, said it was awesome to see everyone come back together for a special occasion.
“Quite a few of us stay in touch, but just being here and seeing each other in person, we don’t get to do that a lot,” Hogg said. “It looks a little different, but it feels like we had just left and it wasn’t that long ago.”
Mike Peterson, a senior captain on the 1987 team, echoed the sentiment of being able to celebrate a special season with several of his former teammates.
“It’s like when you get any type of sports guys together, it’s nothing but story time, a lot of laughing, a lot of trash talking,” Peterson said with a laugh. “So it’s just been awesome. It’s really made my day. My wife was like, ‘I know what you’re going to be like when you come home,’ and I told her she was right. I’m on Cloud 9.”
FOURTH NATIONAL TITLE
Led by Tressel, the Penguins won their fourth national championship in seven years while averaging 30.6 points per game and allowing only 15.3 points per game. They also entered the season ranked as the 11th best team in the nation and rose to No. 1 after a 31-0 shutout win over Indiana State on Oct. 4 of that season.
Heading into the year, the Penguins felt as if they had the ability to do something special.
“We had an understanding, because of the years before and playing for championships, that that was what we wanted to do,” said Frank Page, a senior offensive lineman that season. “We wanted to leave our legacies as seniors that there would be no doubt, like it says on our rings. We were gonna go after it, full tilt.”
The year started off strong with six straight wins, until the Penguins suffered their first loss in a 35-32 decision against Northern Iowa, which was ranked No. 24 at the time. The Penguins went on to rattle off three straight wins afterward but suffered their second and final loss of the season to No. 2 Western Illinois on Nov. 22.
Although those were the two down points in the season, the Penguins used them as motivation.
“When we went into Northern Iowa, ranked No. 1 in the country, we turned the ball over five times in the first half and we were down 32-7 or something like that,” Hogg said. “At the time we were playing really well, we were out playing them we thought, we were just turning the ball over. When we walked out of there, they were chanting ‘overrated’ so that was a little bit of a motivator for us.
“That last game against Western Illinois, they had a really good squad at it came down to the end but they were both games that stuck with you.”
The Penguins’ three-point loss to Western Illinois was the final game of the regular season and as soon as the playoffs started, they hit their stride.
Youngstown State went to knock off Hampton (28-13), No. 1 Villanova (37-34) in the quarterfinals and then No. 6 Eastern Washington (25-14) in the semifinals to set up their trip to Chattanooga for a matchup with McNeese State.
In a defensive slugfest, where both teams combined for 401 yards, the Penguins were able to pull out the victory thanks to a nine-play, 66-yard drive in the final eight minutes of the game, which was set up by a key interception by Jeff Fackrall.
Starting quarterback Demond Tidwell, who missed the play before the game-winning score, re-entered the game and hit Renauld Ray with a 9-yard pass on a play Tressel had made up moments before.
“They (McNeese State) were hard to score against, but we noticed what they were doing down by the goal line, so we took a time out and drew it up in the dirt and it worked,” Tressel said. “If it didn’t work, we wouldn’t be here for this reunion.”
Senior defensive linemen Harry Deligianis, who was an All-American and the Gateway Conference defensive player of the year with 17 total sacks, recalled having to gather his breath before celebrating the title win.
“I was so tired I couldn’t get up after the last play, it took me a few seconds to celebrate,” Deligianis said. “I gave everything I had in that game, I really did and as soon as I got off the turf, it was a heck of a feeling.”
FIRST CONFERENCE TITLE
A year before the Penguins captured their first conference title in school history, they finished 2-9 in Tressel’s first year at the helm. But, to end the year, the Penguins pulled out a 40-39 win over Akron.
It was a win to end the year on the right note, but it also was a big one that set the standard for the offseason and into the 1987 season.
“That just set us on our way,” said Mike McGlone, a senior captain a year later in 1988. “Our offseason training really started to come together. After we beat Akron (in 1986), It was like, ‘Alright, we can do this.’ Coach Tressel brought in a motivational speaker for us and we got real focused – and it helped to have talent, and we had some help from some transfers.”
In 1987, the Penguins finished 8-4 overall and 5-1 in Gateway Conference play with wins over Tennessee Tech, Austin Peavy State, Middle Tennessee State, Murray State and Morehead State.
Their lone conference loss came against Eastern Kentucky, with whom they shared the conference title .
It’s still something a lot of the guys remember.
“I have worn this (conference championship) ring for the 30-plus year that I’ve had it and in fact one of my coaches, just this week, it’s funny this happened, he said: ‘Do you ever take that off?’” Peterson said. “I told him no, because it’s a scar and it reminds me of all the things we’ve been through and where we were. So it’s just a great memory for me from down the road.”News Source: The Vindicator