A Look Back at Youngstown State’s 1991 Championship Run

Back in the 90's Youngstown State football was one of the dominant programs in Division 1-AA. Youngstown State played Boise State in the 1994 Championship.

Youngstown State’s 1991 Championship Run

College football is about five months away, but the start of the off-season with recruiting and spring ball has been on hold due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus.  With barely any sports going on at the moment, it’s a good time to go back to the past and recap Youngstown State’s 1991 FCS championship game. The Penguins took on the Marshall Thundering Herd.

Path to the Playoffs

In the 1991 season, Youngstown State started off on the brink of possibly missing the playoffs. The Penguins had a record of four and three.  Now that may not seem bad, but keep in mind, Youngstown State was Independent at the time, so records mattered. One more loss and they could have been eliminated from playoff contention. Momentum picked up against Georgia Southern who also had a record of four and three.

The Penguins jumped to an early 12-0 lead at Paulson Stadium, a place where the Eagles went 53 of 55 in their home games.  A field goal and a pair of touchdowns helped Georgia Southern come back with the score being 19-17.

Georgia Southern tried to go for two to tie the game but failed to convert.  With a strong ground game, YSU kept the ball for the final five minutes and 40 seconds to win. The Penguins then beat James Madison, Slippery Rock, and Towson at the end of the regular season to make the playoffs. 

Youngstown State Playoff Games

Youngstown State beat Villanova in the first round 17-16 thanks to a Jeff Wilkins field goal. Then, the Penguins beat Nevada with a big offensive game 30-20. Finally, in the semi-final Youngstown State best Samford 10-0 thanks to strong defensive play. 

Against Samford, a turning point was Chris Vecchione returning a fumble for a six-yard touchdown.  During that game, Samford was 0 for 19 on third-down conversions.  Youngstown State’s defense held the Bulldogs to negative four yards rushing. In addition to strong defense, running back Tamron Smith had his best performance yet.  Smith rushed for 246 yards on 46 carries.  Smith has already had a big season with the team and this seemed like his warm-up for what was going to happen during the championship. 

Marshall’s Playoff Games

Now, it was time to play one more game, and this was no easy task as Marshall came in as well with a record of 8-3.  These wins were against Western Illinois, third-seed Northern Iowa, and second-seed Eastern Kentucky.

It was Marshall’s second FCS appearance. The first being in 1987 against Northeast Louisiana. The Thundering Herd lost that game by one point (43-42). Marshall was led by now college football hall of fame quarterback Michael Payton. Payton completed 222 passes on 346 attempts with 3,392 yards and 26 touchdowns.   

Now, it was the Thundering Herds’ turn to win their first-ever FCS championship after coming up short a few years ago.  This game would be the first time that now Hall of Fame coaches Jim Tressel and Jim Donnan played against each other

The 1991 FCS Championship Game

After close playoff games for both teams, it was finally time for these powerhouses to go face to face at Paulson Stadium in Statesboro, Georgia for the championship.  The first quarter was a back and forth defensive battle and neither team scored any points.  

Youngstown State was first to get on the board early in the second quarter thanks to a Jeff Wilkins 23-yard field goal. It was still a very low scoring game. The Penguins went into halftime 3-0 and both teams had to strategize on different ways to score.  The biggest player to make an impact in the first half was Lester Weaver. Weaver set up the field goal.  

The Second Half

It looked as if Donnan’s halftime speech worked as Payton read the blitz finding wide receiver Troy Browns for a 13-yard touchdown making it 7-3 Thundering Herd.  Payton would lead Marshall down again finding Ricardo Clark for another 13-yard touchdown. This made it an eight-point game.  

Both kickers made important field goals leading into the fourth quarter with the score 17-6.  With an offense that was unable to get Smith going, this meant Marshall was going to get the ball back and pull away. 

The Comeback

Quarterback Ray Issac had different plans. Issac did a play-action finding Herb Williams who reenacted his touchdown against Villanova, catching it one-handed for a 33-yard touchdown.  The two-point conversion was no good and it was 17-12.  

Issac was not done. He went up top to Trenton Boykin all the way to the Marshall 10-yard line.  A few plays later, Ryan Wood dove into the endzone, putting the Penguins on top 18-17. The defense came up big again. Payton was hit from behind by Alfred Hill and threw another interception on the day.  

YSU extended the lead by eight thanks to a four-yard run by Smith who struggled all day running the ball.  Payton had one more chance to score, but it was knocked away and in Youngstown State won their first-ever FCS championship by a final of 25-17.

This was Tressel’s first-ever championship as a head coach.  He would win three more in 1993, 1994 and 1997. Tressel would then win a championship with Ohio State during the 2002-2003 season.  He would make it to the National Championship two more times. In 2006-2007 against Florida (lost 41-14) and in 2007-2008 against LSU (lost 38-24). 

After Youngstown State’s 1991 Championship, the Penguins played Marshall in the championship game again in 1992 and 1993. YSU lost in 1992 by a score of 31-28 but came back to win in 1993 17-5.  

Youngstown State Stats 

Ray Issac: 9-15, 198 yards and a touchdown. Tamron Smith had 30 carries for 88 yards and a touchdown. Andre Ballinger made four receptions for 89 yards.  

Marshall Stats 

Michael Payton 30-43 363 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions.  Glenn Pedro had 13 carries for 50 yards.  Ricardo Clark finished with eight receptions for 154 yards and one touchdown.  


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