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Almost anybody else in Division I-AA football would have dreaded the prospect of playing defending national champion Marshall for the 1993 title on the Thundering Herd's home field in Huntington, W.Va. However, for the players at Youngstown State, that scenario was a matter of answered prayers.
To a man, the Penguins felt they had some unfinished business with Marshall after splitting with the Herd in the last two title games. In 1991, Youngstown State won 25-17 on a neutral field in Statesboro, Ga. But last season, when the championship was held at Marshall, the Penguins clawed back from a 28-0 deficit to tie it, only to lose when Marshall's Willy Merrick kicked the only field goal of his college career with 10 seconds remaining. "There was a lot of grief left on that field for us last year," says Youngstown senior tailback Tamron Smith.
So from the day practice began this fall, Smith and his teammates longed for a rematch. Last Saturday they got their wish. As Youngstown coach Jim Tressel put it after his team's 17-5 victory, "We needed to beat Marshall somewhere, and we hoped it would be here."
At the beginning of the season the Penguins were figured to have a better shot at returning to the championship game than Marshall, which lost All-America quarterback Michael Payton to graduation. When Marshall coach Jim Donnan picked his son, Todd, to replace Payton, some Herd fans regarded it as nepotism. Three regular-season losses did little to change their attitude. The elder Donnan became so annoyed after only 14,472 people—about half the stadium's capacity—-braved cold weather to watch Marshall's 24-21 win over Troy State two weeks ago that he said, sarcastically, "I know it's tough out there, but that's why they have K Mart and those places to buy underwear and stuff."
In Saturday's rubber match Donnan's error was in underestimating Youngstown's pent-up frustration. The Herd won the coin toss but allowed the Penguins to receive the opening kickoff. "I felt that with them coming into our stadium, we could stop 'cm," Donnan said. Instead, the Penguins scored in two plays—a 15-yard blast by Smith and a 50-yard TD juke by running back Darnell Clark. Then, after the stunned Herd was unable to move the ball, Youngstown rushed Marshall punter Travis Colquitt so fiercely that he was smothered at his own six. On the next play Smith bolted up the middle for a TD. The extra point made it 14-0, and the game was less than three minutes old.
Youngstown then controlled the ball for most of the game. But with about six minutes to play and the score 17-3, the Herd was finally thundering; Marshall had the ball first-and-goal at the Youngstown three. After tailback Chris Parker ran right twice for a total of a yard, the Penguins stuffed a Donnan quarterback sneak and a fourth-down vault by Parker. "It wouldn't have made any difference if they were on the one-inch line," said Youngstown defensive end David Burch afterward. "We weren't giving up six."
The king had regained the throne. Said Tressel, whose 47 wins at Youngstown in the '90s are more than any coach has had at any I-A or I-AA school, "Believe me, the feeling of getting the national championship back is even better than winning it the first time."