It's hard to believe the Youngstown State University football season has come down to one remaining game that will determine the team's future.
It makes it even tougher when that final game is against Marshall University, a team that is currently 9-1, ranked No. 20 in Division I-A and has already accepted a bid from the GMAC Bowl on Dec. 19 in Mobile, Ala.
The game is in Huntington, W.Va., a place the Penguins know well, since they split with The Herd in two NCAA Division I-AA championship games there and also defeated Boise State on that same field a year later.
That was during the stretch when the Penguins appeared in four consecutive national championship games, beating Marshall in Statesboro, Ga., in 1991, followed by three straight games in Huntington, where the Penguins are 2-1.
Of course, those were the days when Marshall was a I-AA power. Now The Herd has added another 25 scholarships and has become a Division I-A power.
YSU advantage: But the fact that Marshall has already locked the eastern division of the Mid-American Conference, has already accepted a bowl bid and is assured of a spot in the Mid-American Conference championship game on Nov. 30 could be beneficial to the Penguins.
"We'll be playing for our lives on Saturday, while Marshall will be playing for its fans," said YSU coach Jon Heacock.
As big as the challenge is for the Penguins this week, it might be the only one they have left to make the playoffs, which begin Dec. 1.
YSU is playing its best football. The week off before Saturday's 45-7 win over Elon University was a blessing in disguise for the Penguins.
YSU rolled up 609 total yards and had two running backs, P.J. Mays and Mike Burns, each rush for more than 100 yards.
"This is an excellent time of the year for us to be playing this well," Heacock said. "We've played pretty well for the last 10 or 11 quarters."
The Division I-AA playoff field narrowed down somewhat after last weekend's action.
Five conference champions have earned automatic berths -- Northern Iowa in the Gateway, Lehigh in the Patriot, Montana in the Big Sky, Eastern Illinois in the Ohio Valley and Florida A & amp;M in the Mid-Eastern.
Six other teams are almost assured playoff berths -- Georgia Southern and Furman in the Southern Conference, Villanova, Hofstra and Maine in the Atlantic 10 and Sam Houston State in the Southlands.
Fighting for spots: That leaves about 10 or 11 teams, including YSU, fighting for those final spots.
Northern Arizona, which has finished its season at 8-3, will probably get one of those berths. If YSU doesn't beat Marshall, then Western Kentucky will be the second team out of the Gateway.
That still leaves teams like Eastern Kentucky, McNeese State, Northwestern State and Appalachian State all waiting to see who gets picked.
The final decision will be made by the NCAA I-AA selection committee, with the announcement on Nov. 25 in the playoff pairings show on ESPN at 12:30 p.m.
"Our work is cut out for us," said Heacock. "We are the only ones who can decide the direction we will go on from here."
Saturday's game against Marshall will be played at 7 p.m. and will be televised over WFMJ-TV, Channel 21 live.
Tickets for that game are still available at the YSU ticket office located in Stambaugh Stadium or by calling (330) 742-1-YSU.
Pan Atlas Travel is also sponsoring a one-day bus trip to the game, but does not include a game ticket.
X Pete Mollica covers Youngstown State for The Vindicator. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.