By Greg Gulas
It has been 25 years since Youngstown State defeated Samford University in what was then known as the Division I-AA semifinals.
The memories, however, are still very clear to three Penguins who played big roles in that 10-0 victory, a game which catapulted YSU into the championship against Marshall University.
The Penguins beat the Thundering Herd a week later in the first of four consecutive appearances in the title game.
“The wind was really blowing that day and it was very cold. We only had half of the stadium back then as the other side wasn’t yet built, but you could just see that Samford was out of their element,” defensive end Chris Vecchione said. “We harassed their quarterback all day long and forced him into throwing six interceptions. It was just a great defensive showing.”
The Penguins started the season 4-3, won their final four regular-season games to finish 8-3. They had already defeated Villanova at home, 17-16 in the opening round of the playoffs.
Their reward for winning that first pla-off game was a trip to Nevada-Reno, a team they would defeat, 30-28, after a missed, 27-yard field attempt by the Wolf Pack’s Rick Schwendinger. His kick sailed left with one tick left on the clock.
“From my perspective, we had just beaten Nevada-Reno on the road and it was as if we were just returning home to play Samford before heading off to the title game,” Vecchione said. “We were a confident group and this was the one time all season that our defense outscored the offense, a feat of which we were most proud.”
YSU took the early 7-0 lead at 4:23 of the opening frame when Vecchione returned quarterback Ben Wiggins’ fumble from six yards out.
It turned out to be the only touchdown of the contest with Wiggins, who also threw the six picks.
“I distinctly remember Kevin Brown putting a solid hit on their quarterback and the ball squirting free. I saw it fall to the ground, immediately picked it up and raced into the end zone for the score,” Vecchione said. “It was only six yards, but it sure felt like I ran the length of the field. Running was never an enjoyment for me which is why I probably still do not run today, but it sure was an enjoyable sprint that afternoon.”
Wiggins, who was just 15 of 43 through the air for 148 yards on that Dec. 14 day, was also sacked twice by the YSU defense.
Three of those picks were registered by Penguins cornerback Randy Smith as the YSU defense held the Bulldogs to -4 yards rushing on 16 attempts and a humbling 144 total yards.
“Samford was more of a finesse team and we liked to run the ball so there were two very different offensive styles on display,” Randy Smith said. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the ball was thrown, so those three picks still remain a very special memory for me. Credit our defense because we just loved to hit and by the fourth quarter, I don’t think their receivers wanted to catch the ball.”
Upon his graduation in 1993, Tamron Smith (1990-93) still remains the Penguins’ all-time leading rusher with 4,866 yards. He is second with nine 100-yard games yet the only 200 yard game of his career — he rushed for 246 against Samford — came at a time when the Penguins needed him the most.
His 46 attempts against the Bulldogs is still a single game record as well.
“I can remember that Samford was very fast defensively and while we had a couple of nice plays that day, we just couldn’t mount a complete drive. We moved the ball great between the 20-yard lines, yet stalled each time,” Tamron Smith said. “We tried running between the tackles and I vividly remember Drew Gerber grabbing me by the facemask and telling me that I had better not run up the middle again. He told me to bounce it outside and he was right as I was able to get loose for a 15-yard gain in the second quarter, which opened it up for us a bit.”
Placekicker Jeff Wilkins added a field goal at 9:06 of the third quarter to stretch the lead to 10-0, which rounded out the scoring.
According to Smith though, it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that YSU was able to put the game away.
“I had a special bond with my offensive line. They always told me where the holes were and we just had great chemistry. They were absolutely phenomenal,” he said. “After that 15-yard run in the second quarter, the crowd started to get into the game but it took a late drive in the fourth quarter before we could put the game away.
“We needed a couple of first downs in order to sustain that drive and they called my bread-and-butter play, which was ‘21 Dave.’ That’s when I broke free for my 46-yard carry and it gave us some breathing room.”
As a team, YSU controlled everything statistically as the Penguins ran 86 plays for 394 total yards, 341 of which came on the ground. Leo Hawkins added 68 yards and Darnell Clark had 48.
YSU held a 42:45 to 17:15 edge in time of possession and while the Penguins converted just 7 of 19 third-down opportunities, the defense held the Bulldogs without a conversion in 19 third-down plays.