Out of the blue, I got an email one morning earlier this summer from Jake Stump
asking me to come up with a list of the greatest plays in Mountaineer football
history to coincide with the athletic department’s 125-year celebration of West
Virginia University football.
Talk about a daunting task, attempting to pare 125 years' worth of history down
to just five or 10 plays!
Well, rather than painting such a broad stroke and running the risk of missing
something important, such as Bob Dunlevy’s unforgettable touchdown catch to beat
ninth-ranked Syracuse in Morgantown in 1964 — a game Syracuse had already
counted as a win in its pre-game release announcing its acceptance to play LSU
in the Sugar Bowl, or, Zach Abraham’s game-winning TD grab to defeat our old
Steel City friends in 1994 (and coach Don Nehlen forgetting Mr. Abraham at the
stadium after the game leaving yours truly to bring him back to Morgantown),
I thought it would be much easier on my diminishing brain cells to try and narrow
the focus a little bit.
Therefore, rather than coming up with 10 great plays encapsulating 125 years of
football, I have instead picked the five iconic moments from the first undefeated,
untied, regular season in school history, 1988, recently voted by Mountaineer
fans as the greatest football team in WVU annals in an online poll.
I was a front-row observer to that unforgettable season as a sophomore student
assistant working in what was then the Artist Formerly Known as the WVU’s Sports
Communications Office, today now simply called WVU Athletic Communications. At
any rate, those fortunate enough to witness up close this once-in-a-generation
football team all have their favorite moments. These are mine:
Willie Edwards’ fumble recovery against Bowling Green
The 1988 season was less than two minutes old when WVU scored the first of
its 62 touchdowns that year — a Willie Edwards fumble recovery in the end zone
when Bowling Green punter Cris Shale saw Darrell Whitmore barreling down on him
full speed, dropped the football in a moment of terror and then watched
Edwards swoop in to pick it up for a rapid-fire score. It wasn’t the first time
a Mountaineer opponent had their lunch money taken that season.
A.B. Brown’s third-quarter touchdown run at Pitt
Most of the players will point to the Maryland game as the turning point of the
’88 season, but A.B. Brown’s 64-yard touchdown jaunt in the third quarter was
the play that really greased the skids toward perfection. Before Brown’s run
(the “damned Nehlen draw play” that everyone hated so much!) the game was a
tight, closed-fisted affair. And making Brown’s run all the sweeter was the
fact that he once wore a Panther uniform before former Pitt coach Foge Fazio
allowed him and his buddy Eugene Napoleon to transfer down here to Morgantown.
I can imagine more than one Golden Panther supporter yelling “Foge!” — or something
else similar to that — when Brown broke into the clear.
Rather than try to describe the indescribable, I will let WVU's most famous
wordsmith do the honors — the legendary late “Voice of the Mountaineers” Jack Fleming:
“Here’s Harris in trouble, stiff-arms a would-be tackler, COMES DOWN OVER THE 20,
GOES AROUND A MAN AT THE 15, THE 10, THE FIVE — A TOUCHDOWN WEST VIRGINIA! HE DID
IT! WHAT A MOVE HE MADE ON THE FIRST TACKLER, WHAT A MOVE HE MADE ON THE SECOND
AND ON THE THIRD; GALLOPS IN FOR THE TOUCHDOWN — TAKES IT ALL THE WAY IN!”
I love this play not so much because Major was such a gifted athlete, but rather
because he went the wrong way and was still able to wiggle himself out of such
an impossible situation. I once asked former Penn State defensive coordinator Tom
Bradley about Major’s run during the one year he worked for us at WVU, and when
I told him that Major went the wrong way on that play, a crooked smile formed on
his face. That’s because the Penn State players knew West Virginia’s plays better
than the Mountaineer players did and the Lions all went where Harris was supposed
to go, not where he actually went! That makes Major’s run even sweeter. Twenty-eight
years later I still get goose bumps watching it. Do yourself a favor and listen to Fleming describe it.
Undra Johnson’s first-half-closing TD jaunt against Penn State
Talk about an exclamation point! Leading Penn State, 34-8, with the Mountaineers
content to run out the clock and celebrate their 26-point halftime lead over
Paterno’s white-cladded, Nittany Lion Storm Troopers, Undra Johnson had other
ideas. He took a simple handoff from Harris (another one of those Nehlen
draw plays!), veered toward to his left and then out-ran the entire Penn State
defense for a 55-yard touchdown.
I was sitting right next to Penn State’s salty, old sports information director,
L. Budd Thalman, in the press box and he could see me struggling to contain myself
when Undra crossed the goal line. Budd gave me a look that clearly indicated
that he wanted to punch me in the throat, but I didn’t care, there was more than
30 years-worth of frustration being released with every step Johnson took. Had
I been interested in pursuing another career, I would have given old Budd the
double-finger salute and caused a crisis, but I managed to constrain
my pleasure to just a momentary smile. #ProfessionalRestraint
WVU’s victory lap after the Syracuse win
The frosting was still being applied to the cake when the Mountaineer players
and coaches returned to the locker room following West Virginia’s hard-fought,
31-9 victory over 14th-ranked Syracuse to conclude the regular season. I was
among the WVU staffers in there prepared to retrieve the players for post-game
interviews when athletic equipment manager Danny Nehlen burst through the doors.
“Get your gear back on!” he told the celebrating players. “Nobody has left
the stadium. They want you to go back out and take a victory lap!” So the players
and coaches put their stuff back on and returned to the field to make the sweetest
half-mile jog of their lives - a moment none of them will ever forget. It was,
perhaps, the most unforgettable moment in a season full of unforgettable moments.
Hope to see you at the stadium this fall as we celebrate 125 years of WVU football!
Let’s Go Mountaineers!
John Antonik is responsible for the oversight of the web sites WVUsports.com,
MountaineerAthleticClub.com, WVUGAME.com, WVUVarsityClub.com and ShopWVU.com
as the Director of Digital Media for the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. He is also the author of four books on WVU sports, including "Saturday Snapshots," published by WVU Press in August 2015.
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