YSU’s disappointing loss in 1992 fueled its second title run
The path to Youngstown State’s second national title began inside a bus in Huntington, W.Va., on Dec. 19, 1992. The Penguins had just lost the NCAA Division I-AA championship game to Marshall, 31-28, on a 22-yard field goal with 10 seconds left. As they waited in traffic on the way to the airport, they were forced to listen to the sound of Marshall fans honking their horns in celebration.
“[Coach Jim] Tressel had us reflect on that when we were riding out, how happy they were at our demise,” said Tamron Smith, a junior running back on YSU’s 1992 team. “There was a lot of tears, a lot of anger.
“I remember that loss more than any victory we ever had.”
Soon after, Tressel turned the “Horns of Huntington” — a phrase he got from his friend, Dr. Pat Spurgeon — into the rallying cry for the 1993 season, challenging his players to get back to their third straight I-AA championship game, which again would be played in Huntington.
This is the story of that 1993 season, as told to Vindicator sports writer Joe Scalzo by Tressel, Smith and four other members of that team: senior offensive lineman Drew Gerber, senior defensive lineman David Burch, junior offensive lineman Chris Sammarone and sophomore quarterback Mark Brungard.
SMITH: The mindset of that team was to get back to the championship game and hope that Marshall was there. Nobody had to be told it was time to get ready on the first day of 6 a.m.s [workouts]. We wanted payback.
SAMMARONE: We were losing our quarterback [Nick Cochran] and a lot of great seniors, but overall we were a confident team. We were bringing back a lot of talent.
GERBER: I don’t think anybody doubted we could get back there. After 1991 [when YSU beat Marshall in the final] and 1992, it was just expected. We knew what we had to do.
YSU opened the season with a 17-13 win at Western Michigan, which would go 7-3 and finish second in the Mid-American Conference.
GERBER: Western Michigan had a crappy locker room in some old building that was falling apart. Then we had to walk through the tailgate lot while they were yelling at us. We just wanted to win and get out of there.
SMITH: The first two games, I actually wasn’t supposed to play. I had some trouble in school and I had barely scraped by, so Coach Tressel actually made me suit up for those two games but I wasn’t supposed to play. But in the fourth quarter against Western, we had a third-and-1 and we were trying to hold on to the lead. We wasn’t able to get a third-and-1 all day, so Coach Tressel sent me in for one play, I got about eight yards and that was it for me. That goes to show you — Coach Tressel is a man of his word, but he ain’t dumb.
SAMMARONE: That game was classic Tressel. We had a first-year quarterback starting and we must have run the ball 1,000 times.
BURCH: We all know what we did to MAC schools. We smacked them around.
YSU then traveled to Stephen F. Austin, where it suffered one of just two losses that season, 35-15.
SAMMARONE: That was a miserable trip. We flew commercial out of the Cleveland airport into God knows where, maybe Austin, and then we had to bus for three hours [to Nacogdoches]. And the air conditioning on the buses was broke and it was like 90 degrees down there. Then we ran like 80-some offensive plays and we had the ball inside their 10 like five times, but we kicked five field goals. We couldn’t score. When we got down by their goal line, it felt like there were 15 guys in the box.
BURCH: That was the only game I felt like we should have lost that year. That was the only team I remember being as fast as us and as physical as us. They had a lineman named Octus Polk who ended up playing for the Chicago Bears. I owe him a drink. He was the only guy that year that kind of handed it to me.
Smith returned to the lineup for a Week 3 home game against Morgan State, which YSU won 56-27. He entered the game needing 120 yards to break Robby Robson’s career rushing mark and passed Robson on a 36-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
SMITH: Tressel found out I only needed three yards to get the record, so he was like, ‘Go get the three yards so everyone can cheer.’ Well back then, we had something called “the best seat in the house,” which was this La-Z Boy chair that was right where the scoreboard is now. Well the play busts wide open and I ended up scoring. So I’m like, ‘Shoot, we’re winning big and I’m not going back in the game,’ so I threw the ball in the air after I scored and sat in the chair. Flags went down everywhere. Oh man, Tress was so hot, you could have fried an egg on his head.
BRUNGARD: There were only a few times I actually saw Coach Tressel’s wrath and that was one of them. He usually left that to his assistants.
Brungard injured his shoulder in the spring, but ended up winning the starting job out of training camp. Still, over the first four games, he split time with redshirt freshman Chad Vogt. That changed after a Week 4 win at Eastern Kentucky, which would lose in the first round of the playoffs to Georgia Southern. Brungard went 11 of 14 for 147 yards and two TDs and the Penguins won 26-22.
BRUNGARD: We ran most of the time, so nobody really cared who was handing the ball off, but I felt like I had to perform continually. I couldn’t have a bad practice or a bad half. And I felt like that Eastern Kentucky game was the signature win of the season. I made some plays early and had a really good game and I never came out of it. After that, I never looked back.
SMITH: We thought Mark was going to be good, but he wasn’t there yet. He was on his way to being a great quarterback but in that early stage, it was me and Darnell [Clark] tallying up a bunch of yards.
BRUNGARD: Let’s be honest. We had great special teams, a great defense and a great running game. I did enough not to screw it up. It was perfect for a sophomore in that system.
TRESSEL: I often tell people, in my 25 years — 10 at Ohio State and 15 at Youngstown — I was blessed to go to nine national championship games with eight different quarterbacks. I felt like our staff did a good job utilizing what a quarterback could do.
That victory was the start of a seven-game winning streak, most of them easy wins. The Penguins beat Delaware State (42-28), Liberty (42-0), Samford (24-7), Buffalo (38-12) and Indiana State (17-10).
TRESSEL: A lot of those games blend together but I do remember our guys did a great job of continuing to get better. By the end of the year, we were a really good football team. And the thing that sticks out is we were good at all three phases of the game.
BURCH: We played teams from all over. Basically, if you raised your hand, we’d come play you. By the time we got to the playoffs, we’d seen so many different kinds of offenses.
The team’s second, and final, loss came on Nov. 13 at Illinois State, which was coached by Jim Heacock, whose brother Jon was an assistant at YSU. Jim would later join Tressel’s staff at Ohio State, while Jon would replace Tressel when he left for Ohio State in 2000.
BURCH: [Laughing] I don’t want to point any fingers, but they knew a little more stuff about us than they should have been knowing.
GERBER: This is going to sound strange but after that game I knew we were going to win it all. It was the right time to lose. It was an eye-opener.
SAMMARONE: I remember after that game was one of the few times Tressel had the whole team in for a film session. He broke down every play for four or five hours and it was one of the few times he actually seemed animated. He was clearly upset with the way we performed.
BRUNGARD: I played terrible.
TRESSEL: That was a good learning game. It really taught us a lot of lessons.
YSU finished the regular season with a 19-0 win at Akron, which Tressel considered YSU’s main rival.
BURCH: Tressel wanted us to be the second-best team in Ohio.
SAMMARONE: I remember it was like 10 degrees at the Rubber Bowl. I never wore gloves because I played center but I put gloves on for that one. No sleeves, though. My arms had so much fat, they never got cold. Our defense physically dominated them.
YSU played three straight home playoff games. The first came against Central Florida, which had shocked the Penguins in the first round of the 1990 playoffs following an 11-0 season. YSU won this round 56-30, with Burch returning an interception 57 yards for a TD.
BURCH: I messed up in that 1990 game. I was playing linebacker and I could have caught a tipped pass. It hit me in the chest, then the stomach then the foot and I didn’t catch it. It was like revenge.
SAMMARONE: We were like an offensive machine in that game. Physically, they could not stop us.
YSU then drubbed I-AA power Georgia Southern, 34-14.
BURCH: We beat them in 1991 but I still don’t think they respected us. They had like minus-50 yards rushing at halftime.
The Penguins then hosted Idaho, which featured quarterback Doug Nussmeier, who won the Walter Payton Awards as the nation’s top I-AA player. He was drafted by the Saints in the fourth round in 1994 and now serves as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. YSU won 35-16 in frigid conditions.
BURCH: I loved playing against Nussmeier. He was a prima donna. He didn’t even ride the team bus to the game. We took that personal. He owes me a drink.
TRESSEL: We were always comfortable against those Big Sky teams. They threw it around a lot but they didn’t play much defense. I can’t remember ever losing against one of them. It was a good matchup for us.
SMITH: They thought it was an insult that they had to come here from Idaho. We had to put a little salt on that insult and rub their heads in the dirt.
That win set up a rematch with Marshall. The Penguins scored on the game’s second play, a 50-yard run by Clark. Smith added a 5-yard TD run on the next possession and Jeff Wilkins hit a 19-yard field goal late in the first quarter to take a 17-0 lead. The Penguins went on to win 17-5 with a memorable goal line stand in the final minutes.
SAMMARONE: When the playoff bracket first came out, we saw that we were on different sides. We were praying we’d play Marshall.
TRESSEL: Our guys didn’t mind being on the road at all. After three home games, it was getting a little bit stale. We preferred to play there.
BURCH: Marshall disrespected us. They had us sitting in the corner for the banquet party. We were treated like third-class citizens on this riverboat we went on. It just added fuel to the fire. But we knew we were going to beat them. Coach Tressel let us bring camcorders because he felt so comfortable. That was the only game he let us do that.
BRUNGARD: Wherever we went in the city, we got booed or thumbs down. It built a lot of resentment and anger. Guys had a huge chip on their shoulder.
SMITH: The year before, we got down 28-0 to Marshall and we were running stuff that was out of character, like a triple reverse option. We were trying to fool Marshall and that wasn’t us. We punched you in the mouth. This time, we weren’t trying to trick nobody. When Darnell scored, I was so fired up. I was like, ‘We doing what we do now.’
BRUNGARD: Darnell’s run was a huge relief for me because I was nervous beyond belief. It immediately injected everyone with confidence. And when Tamron made that touchdown run, he ran right up on the [stadium] hill and saluted the Marshall fans, who were trying to throw beer on him. Once we got up 17-0, Coach kept it really tight to the vest. But I think I still have the record for completion percentage. I was 7 of 8 and the minimum was eight attempts.
TRESSEL: I remember they made a big poster of the goal line stand, knocking him [Marshall RB Chris Parker] backward. The 11th guy kept him out, but the other 10 were exactly where they needed to be, in their gaps.
BURCH: I’m still upset about Coach Tressel giving them a safety. We could have played them six times and I don’t think they would have scored a touchdown.
GERBER: I remember the last drive, we were taking a couple knees and I was like, ‘This is it.’ I had a chance to soak it in. It was the best series of my life and we probably had negative yards on it.
SMITH: If you look at our national championship rings, you’ll see it has ‘Horns of Huntington’ on it.
SAMMARONE: Guys now don’t understand what it’s like in this community when you’re competing at that level. That whole stretch run, we felt like we were the Ohio State of Youngstown. People went berserk. And the thing that sticks out was how close that team was.
GERBER: I told Coach, ‘Thank you for putting this team together.’ We were like brothers. I had a stroke in January and there were so many guys who drove to Wooster, an hour and a half out of their way, to check in on me. There’s always going to be a connection between us. You don’t have to pull out a ring. We’re family. I’m a coach now and when I hear kids talk about family and team and protecting your house, I don’t think they understand what that means, what it’s like when you love the guy next to you and you’d do anything for him. That’s what that team was like.