West Virginia strong safety Bo Orlando was saying the other day that the Mountaineer players typically "are modest people, not cocky." Indeed, it could be argued that they have had a lot to be modest about over the years. West Virginia has been to one major bowl, the Sugar in 1954, in its 94-year history; it has never won the Lambert Trophy, awarded to the best team in the East; only once in the last 32 years has it beaten Penn State; and its record over the past two seasons was 10-13.
Now, suddenly, the self-effacing Mountaineers are seeing not only a light at the end of the tunnel, but a spotlight. Saturday's smashing 31-10 win on the road over Pitt proved that the Mountaineers are a solid Top 20 team—and maybe a lot better than that. If they finish the season undefeated—and that is no long shot, as we shall see—they will have to be considered a candidate for the national championship.
Admittedly, "West Virginia, National Champ" does sound strange. About as strange as "BYU, National Champ" sounded back in '84; we all got used to that, but only because every other team lost at least one game. The same good fortune could befall West Virginia this season. ESPN commentator Beano Cook was the first to pick West Virginia as his preseason No. 1. Cook later admitted that he thinks UCLA will be the best, but he didn't pick the Bruins because doing a piece on them would require a long plane trip from his Pittsburgh home to L.A., and he hates flying. (He also regards the Bruins' schedule as too tough.) Cook further hedges his bet by saying that the Mountaineers have a tendency to self-destruct.
He's right. In 1984, when the Mountaineers whipped Penn State for that one victory since 1955, they were 7-1 and clearly big-bowl bound. But three ignominious defeats in a row, to Virginia, Rutgers and Temple, consigned them to the Bluebonnet Bowl.
This year the biggest obstacle to the Mountaineers' hopes for a national title is that they have no more obstacles. Their schedule—which includes Bowling Green, Cal State-Fullerton, Virginia Tech, East Carolina, Cincinnati and Maryland—can hardly impress voters. The mountain folk have a saying: If you can't hunt with the big dogs, then stay on the porch. But hand it to the Mountaineers. They hunted with the big dogs last Saturday and bagged their limit against the Panthers. The win ran their record to 4-0.
There is indeed talent on this team, and it begins on the offensive line. Every player has started for at least 2½ years. And behind them are experienced backups. West Virginia's first touchdown drive against Pitt showed how good this unit is. On second and 25 from his own 17, quarterback Major Harris swept around end for a 38-yard gain behind flawless blocking, and he capped the drive four plays later with a 33-yard TD pass to flanker Reggie Rembert. Harris didn't even have to keep his feet moving as he waited for Rembert to get open on a slant pattern; he stood there behind his line as if he were waiting for a bus.
Harris is a real find. Only a sophomore, he's in his second year as a starter, and he modestly concedes "I'm a complete quarterback." He's from Pittsburgh, where Panther recruiters concluded that he might make a pretty fair defensive back. Harris's backup is Greg Jones, a Miami transfer with a big-time arm. Overall, West Virginia has 17 players from Florida. Coach Don Nehlen reached into Pennsylvania for 37 players and into New Jersey for 14 more. Only 25 are from West Virginia.
Nehlen also has two transfers from Pitt, and one of them, tailback A.B. Brown, made the most important play of the game. With 10:23 remaining in the third quarter, Nehlen called a simple tailback draw up the middle, catching Pitt in an all-out blitz. Thanks again to perfect offensive line blocking. Brown burst upfield for 64 yards and the TD that put the Mountaineers ahead 17-7.
Brown is just one of a bevy of good running backs. Receivers are everywhere. The defense, while sometimes lacking aggression, is more than adequate. Against Pitt, it was dominating as well as opportunistic. Shortly after Rembert caught the initial TD pass, West Virginia cornerback Alvoid Mays made a flying interception of a Darnell Dickerson pass at the Pitt 23, leading to a field goal and a quick 10-0 advantage. Mays later made another interception, and Orlando added a third.
For Pitt, the day was made all the more miserable because of its kicking game. Six punts, five by Jeff VanHorne, averaged just 34.6 yards. Coach Mike Gottfried had said on Friday afternoon, "We'll have to run, play defense and not have the special teams mess up." Pitt got only 81 yards rushing, and the punting debacle continually forced a beleaguered defense into poor field position. The game plan was torpedoed.
For his part, Nehlen doesn't know what to make of these high, high hopes. "I think talk of a national championship is ridiculous," he says. "Well, almost ridiculous." But it would be heaven for West Virginians, who can't recall anything about their state ever coming close to No. 1—except Take Me Home, Country Roads. At the very least, the Mountaineers have proved they don't have to stay on the porch. But they could sure use some more big dogs.