Demond Tidwell's 9-yard touchdown pass to Renauld Ray with eight minutes left Saturday _ on a play Youngstown's coaches made up seconds before on the sidelines _ lifted the Penguins to a 10-9 victory over McNeese State and their fourth Division I-AA championship this decade.
"Coach (Jim) Tressel probably drew that play up in the dirt," said Tidwell. "Truly, we had never run that play all year long. You just have to improvise sometimes, and that's what we did."
On third-and-goal at the 9, the Penguins sent receiver Mark Cox into motion and had Tidwell call for the snap just as Cox passed behind receiver Renauld Ray.
"We thought there would be a possibility of a miscommunication because they were playing man (-to-man coverage in the defensive secondary)," Tressel said. "We snapped the ball, they miscommunicated, and that's the difference in the championship game. One mistake."
Both defenders went with Cox, while Ray loped all alone to the back left corner of the end zone, where Tidwell lofted him the winning pass.
"The ball seemed like it was in the air forever," Ray said. "It didn't seem like it was ever coming down."
Youngstown State (13-2), which also won titles in 1991, '93 and '94, won Saturday by capitalizing on the game's only turnover, an interception by Penguins linebacker Jeff Fackrell in the fourth quarter that set up the winning 66-yard drive.
"We turned it over and the momentum swung. You could feel it. Our kids felt it," said McNeese coach Bobby Keasler.
After the interception, Tidwell, who completed 11-of-20 passes for 110 yards, drove the Penguins 66 yards in nine plays, accounting for a third of Youngstown's total 200 offensive yards.
Tidwell started the drive with a 22-yard completion to tight end Tim Tyrell. He also completed passes of eight yards to Willis Marshall and 14 yards to Cox, the latter giving the Penguins a first down at the McNeese 7.
Tidwell was sacked on third down at the McNeese 10, but Cowboys linebacker Charles Ayro got his hand on Tidwell's face mask and the penalty gave the Penguins another chance.
Tidwell was poked in the eye on the play and left for one down. Reserve quarterback Jared Zwick fumbled the snap, but the Penguins jumped offside first, and so the fumble was nullified and the Penguins had yet another chance.
"In the 25 seconds between plays you don't think about fate," Tressel said when asked if it seemed his team was destined to score after getting three chances on third down.
Tidwell returned after one play and lofted the TD pass.
It was lowest-scoring championship game in I-AA history, surpassing Youngstown's 17-5 victory over Marshall in 1993.
McNeese, making its first appearance in the championship, got field goals of 37 and 46 yards by Shonz LaFrenz to take a 9-3 lead with 51 seconds left in the third quarter.
McNeese (13-2) drove from its 45 into Penguins territory on the next possession when Prejean's pass was intercepted for the only turnover of the day by either team. Prejean finished 14-of-28 for 143 yards.
"It just a bad read and a bad throw," Prejean said.
McNeese couldn't take full advantage of dominant field position in the first half, either.
The Cowboys started their first three possessions at their 43, 41 and 46. They drove into Youngstown territory each time, but could manage just three points.
The first drive was killed by an offensive face-mask penalty that wiped out a first-down play.
The second ended in LaFrenz's 22-yard field goal, but only after tight end Chris Fontenot, the team's third-leading receiver with 42 catches, dropped an easy touchdown pass on third down.
"At halftime we thought we should have had a couple of touchdowns on the board," Keasler said. "We dropped one in the end zone. I know that young man is crying his eyes out in the dressing room right now."
The third drive ended when Youngstown's Mike Stanec broke through to block a 41-yard field goal attempt.
Up until that point, the Penguins had not managed even a first down on offense, going three-and-out on their first three possessions.
Reserve quarterback Zwick, a seldom-used sophomore, came in for one series and threw a 17-yard pass to Tyrell for Youngstown's first down with 13:12 left in the half.
That helped turn around the field position, and Tidwell returned on the next series to drive the Penguins 52 yards in 14 plays to Mark Griffith's 21-yard field goal with 2:19 left in the half to make it 3-3 at the break.
"It's a shame only one team gets to win," Tressel said. "But I'm glad this one did."