The Mountaineers Sure Know How To Climb

By beating BC and the redoubtable Doug Flutie, West Virginia showed it's ready to scale its way into a major bowl
October 29, 1984

When the delirium finally began to subside after West Virginia's 21-20 upset of previously undefeated Boston College, a.k.a. the University of Flutie, last Saturday in Morgantown, Mountaineer coach Don Nehlen knew exactly how important the triumph was. "It means," said Nehlen, whose team is now 6-1, "that with four games left, we can lose only five games this season."

Indeed, in a year in which upsets are the norm—among the teams that have been somebody's No. 1 and have tumbled are Miami, Auburn, Nebraska, Ohio State, UCLA, Texas, SMU, Arizona State and Clemson—modesty would appear to be becoming. "Whenever you get to thinkin' you're pretty good," said Nehlen, "you get your butt kicked." To quote George Bush, sort of. So it may be time to pity poor West Virginia, which had been safely hidden in the hills playing mediocre or worse teams, including Ohio and Louisville. Though the Mountaineers' schedule remains far from formidable, Saturday's win, their fourth straight over BC, makes them fresh-faced contenders, if not for No. 1, then for a major-bowl bid, something they haven't received since 1954. And if West Virginia beats Penn State this weekend, for the first time since 1955, it will all but lock up the Lambert Trophy as the premier team in the East.

To beat third-ranked BC, the Mountaineers had to compensate for a lethargic offense that behaved as if it had altitude sickness. West Virginia did so by playing defense with the steely resolve of a classic mountain man and the brashness of a riverboat gambler. Who would have thought the Mountaineers could get away with blitzing BC quarterback Doug Flutie, a master at evading hell-bent-for-leather pass rushers? Conventional wisdom holds that forcing Flutie from the pocket can be very detrimental to your chances of victory. West Virginia didn't buy the conventional wisdom. After the Mountaineers beat the Eagles 27-17 in 1983, despite Flutie's 418-yard passing performance, Nehlen and his defensive coordinator, Dennis Brown, committed themselves to a pressure defense for the '84 encounter. This meant that West Virginia would rush as many as eight men, including the free safety. That required the Mountaineer secondary to play tight, near-perfect man-for-man pass defense.

Isn't that an awfully risky thing to do? "Of course," said Brown after the game, "but any time you try anything against Flutie, it's chancy."

What made the West Virginia win even more satisfying is that Flutie didn't have a particularly crummy day. He completed 21 of 42 throws for 299 yards and one touchdown. Penalties nullified another 140 yards, including a 17-yard TD pass to Gerard Phelan, and Flutie's receivers dropped enough balls to warrant his coming down with a case of the mutters. Of course, the Mountaineers' defensive pressure had a lot to do with the incompletions. Said Flutie afterward, "They were comin' all day."

Bear in mind that BC came into the game with the nation's No. 2 scoring offense, averaging 39.5 points a game. In the second half Boston College failed to score a point, and in 12 third-down situations during the game could convert just one. Tailback Troy Stradford, who represents BC's running game, netted eight yards on six carries, and the Eagles' total was all of 19.

Boston College started well, scoring on four of its first six possessions—two field goals by Kevin Snow, a 24-yard draw for a touchdown by fullback Steve Strachan and a 42-yard bomb from Flutie to flanker Kelvin Martin. However, West Virginia strong safety Anthony Daniels was playing one of the best games of his career and in the second quarter he put his finger on why the Mountaineer defense wasn't doing better. "Our guys don't want to play football," Daniels told Brown. "They want to fight."

Brown promptly convened a sideline meeting and dressed down the troops. "This isn't the Friday Night Fights," he said. "This is Saturday afternoon football. We want fighters in technique, not fighters in boxing gloves." Suitably chastened, his defenders buckled their chin straps and put their fists on ice.

Still, at the half the Mountaineers were down 20-6 and wearing hang-dog looks. In the dressing room Brown wrote "20" on the blackboard—representing BC's 20 points—and then said, "If 20 points are still on the board at the end of the game, we'll win." Which was a nice way of saying, "All you have to do is play perfect football in the second half, and maybe our offense will bail us out. Maybe."

West Virginia's attack suffers because the level of play at quarterback isn't what it has been in recent years, which isn't surprising. The Mountaineers had Jeff Hostetler, now with the Giants, in 1982 and '83, and before him, the multitalented Oliver Luck. The successor, senior Kevin White, isn't in their league, except when it comes to winning. Somehow, some way, he completed 17 of 30 passes for 227 yards. Not spectacular, only semi-Flutie-like. And, somehow, some way, with the Mountaineers trailing 20-9, White connected with split end Willie Drewrey on a 52-yarder, which set up a one-yard scoring plunge by Ron Wolfley on the first play of the fourth quarter. And somehow, some way, White drove his team 80 yards for the winning touchdown. John Gay carried the last four times, blasting over from the five with 4:52 to play. Those two touchdowns, coupled with Paul Woodside's three field goals, just did it.

But the day belonged to the defense, particularly Daniels, who intercepted Flutie last year to preserve that win. Although other Mountaineer defenders were more visible than Daniels, who had only four solo tackles and no interceptions on Saturday (he had four going into the game), he kept the BC offense under control with his leadership, steady play and subtle ploys, such as faking coverage to throw off Flutie. "It's mind-baffling playing against Flutie," said Daniels. "You never know what he's going to do. The minute you take your eye off your man to see where Flutie is, he'll throw to your man."

For Flutie, however, the day was an enormous disappointment, partly because he'll end his college career without having beaten West Virginia. Still, he remains the choice to win the Heisman. That's mainly because, with the possible exception of Ohio State running back Keith Byars, the nation's leading rusher, and Bernie Kosar, the brilliant Miami quarterback, nobody else has emerged. But Byars is only a junior, and with the Buckeyes hardly dominating the Big 10, he hasn't had the benefit of intense media focus. Kosar is throwing for 278 yards a game and completing 63% of his passes, but he has the grave disadvantage of being only a sophomore, so he, too, can wait his turn.

Flutie could have virtually wrapped up the Heisman on Saturday when BC got the ball following Gay's TD. This was Flutie's kind of situation. And for one fleeting moment, the magic lived. Facing fourth-and-four with 3:26 remaining, he scrambled to his right. No one was open. What would he do? Simple. Still on the run, he tossed a little jump pass to Stradford, who was down on his knees. First down on the Mountaineer 38.

But the Eagles' dreams of another remarkable finish turned into a nightmare as Flutie was sacked on first down before completing one pass to Stradford for a loss of three yards and missing on his final two tries. On the last one, he overthrew tight end Scott Gieselman, who was open up the middle. Afterward, Flutie, who has handled the Heisman pressure in the classiest of ways, was graceful in defeat. He pleasantly answered every question, including those about how he'd screwed up. Typically, he didn't shift the blame. "I should have done much better," he said. "I wasn't setting my feet as well as I should have. And I should have stood there and thrown the ball and taken some hits instead of scrambling."

In a game that was erratically officiated, Flutie pointed no fingers. He wouldn't even complain about the time in the fourth quarter, with 12:59 left, when the officials inexplicably robbed Boston College of a down. "Somebody just messed up," he said. "It's just one of those things." Indeed it was. Earlier, West Virginia had been zinged when a ref blew his whistle at the wrong moment. That gaffe helped set up an Eagle TD.

While Flutie is always the center of attention, the Mountaineers in fact stole his show, and much of the credit must go to Nehlen. He arrived in Morgantown in December 1979 after spending nine years as coach at Bowling Green and three as a Michigan assistant under Bo Schembechler. The first thing he didn't like about West Virginia was the negative attitude toward football—on the part of the students, faculty, coaches and players. "Football," he says, "is 90 percent from the neck up." By that criterion, the Mountaineers were seriously lacking. Up went signs about Positive Mental Attitude. Lights were turned off in team meetings, and the players were told to visualize doing something positive.

After finishing 6-6 in 1980, the Mountaineers went 9-3 and beat Florida in the Peach Bowl in '81. Before the '82 season, which would open with a visit to Oklahoma, the coaches sent a postcard to each player. It read in part, "We defeated Oklahoma because...." It went on to list all the terrific things the players had done to win the game. Talk about positive thinking. West Virginia then went to Norman and won 41-27. The Mountaineers finished 9-3 again, losing to Florida State in the Gator Bowl. Last year they beat Kentucky in the Hall of Fame Bowl to wind up 9-3 once more.

In this chaotic season, teams with two losses, and conceivably even three, will be in major bowls. West Virginia and BC may both qualify.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAGay went airborne on his fifth carry of the key drive, a 21-yard run that set up his...
PHOTORONALD C. MODRA...five-yard TD dash, which uplifted the home fans but upset a ref seeking the ball. PHOTOTONY TOMSIC[See caption above.] PHOTOTONY TOMSICAt times middle linebacker Matt Smith was one of eight Mountaineers rushing Flutie. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAWhite doesn't do anything well—but win. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAThe Eagles' acrobatic Phelan grabbed seven passes that counted... PHOTOTONY TOMSIC...and one, a 17-yarder in the end zone, that didn't.