The 1997 National Champions
The Penguins travelled the long road on the way to winning their fourth national championship in seven years. In the playoffs, YSU had to win two of three games on the road to get to the title game and those contests took the Penguins across the country en route to winning the national title.
That journey ended in Chattanooga, Tenn., in the National Championship Game against McNeese State. In a tight contest, the Penguins trailed 9-3 entering the fourth quarter before the Cowboys committed a costly mistake.
With 12:02 remaining in the contest, Jeff Fackrell intercepted a Blake Prejean pass at the YSU 35 to end a Cowboy threat and keep the Penguins within 9-3. Just over four minutes later, Demond Tidwell threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Renauld Ray and after Mark Griffith's extra point YSU led 10-9.
The Cowboys had two final chances only to be stopped each time by the Penguin defense. The YSU offense came up big with a clock-consuming 5:07 drive where it went only 13 yards. Tidwell threw key passes to convert 3rd-and-7 and 3rd-and-4 situations into first downs. The drive began at YSU's 36 and went as far as the MSU 39 before ending back at Youngstown State's 49 because of a penalty and seven-yard loss.
YSU had taken over possession with 6:23 left before giving the ball back to McNeese with just 1:16 remaining and pinning the Cowboys at their 22-yard line. Four plays later, including two sacks by Harry Deligianis, the game was over.
The teams had remarkably similar statistics, YSU had 12 first downs and 200 total yards while McNeese had 11 first downs and 201 yards of total offense.
Youngstown State was seeded eighth in the playoffs following a 9-2 regular season. In the first round, the Penguins opened with a 28-13 win over Hampton at Stambaugh Stadium, then the travels began for YSU on its way to another title.
In the quarterfinals, YSU trailed 21-0 at top-seed Villanova before mounting a furious rally. At halftime, the Penguins were behind 28-14 before scoring 23 unanswered points to build a 37-28 lead. The Wildcats scored late in the game and outyarded the Penguins 459-286.
YSU's postseason road trip continued in Spokane, Wash., against Eastern Washington. The Penguins led 17-0 on an Adrian Brown touchdown run, a Mike Stanec fumble return and a Mark Griffith field goal. But the Golden Eagles responded with 14 third-quarter points to trim the deficit to three. In the fourth, EWU was deep in YSU territory before Jake Anderson intercepted a pass ending the threat. Brown added a touchdown for a 25-14 victory.
In the regular season, YSU began the season hot winning its first six games before Northern Iowa handed the Penguins a 35-32 defeat. YSU opened with wins over Slippery Rock, Kent State, at Boston, Hofstra, at Indiana State and over Buffalo. Against UNI, YSU never led and trailed by as many as 25 points before losing by three. YSU rebounded with convincing wins over Illinois State, Southern Illinois and Southwest Missouri State before losing the regular-season home finale 24-21 to Western Illinois. YSU led 21-10 in the third quarter before the Leathernecks rallied to score late in the third and in the fourth to win the Gateway Football Conference championship.