When the Musket smoke cleared after West Virginia's 31-9 blowout of Syracuse last Saturday night, the Mountaineers charged out of their locker room for a curtain call. The team that has become the biggest story in the state had played the biggest game in the state's history and had won it in a workmanlike, almost casual way. A crowd of 65,127 bathed the players in an ovation as they circled Mountaineer Field on a victory lap.
Never before in 96 years of playing football had West Virginia ended its regular season undefeated and untied. Never has it won the Lambert Trophy, which is bestowed upon the best team in the East. This was a moment for the citizens of the economically battered state to savor, as Dan Pierson, the buckskin-clad Mountaineer mascot, fired his musket in celebration. On Oct. 29 Pierson's volley was followed by a near-riot when fans stormed the goalposts after the Mountaineers routed Penn State 51-30. Now the faithful were content to rejoice from the stands. Perhaps they had become more accustomed to winning, although several German shepherds at the edge of the field may have contributed to their restraint.
Or perhaps the mature, methodical Mountaineers were deserving of a more decorous salute on this misty Saturday night. There was the huge, close-knit offensive line, fifth-year seniors to a man, which had handled a sturdy Orange defense. There was Willie Edwards, a hometown cornerback, whose 49-yard interception return for a touchdown was the game's biggest defensive play. There was sophomore quarterback Major Harris, whose guile and gall helped turn 14 of 20 third downs into first downs. And there was coach Don Nehlen, who was beside himself after the game, crying, "Hot damn! Holy criminy, baby, my kids played like the devil!"
Before the opening kickoff Nehlen had a demon of his own to battle. While his troops were facing their most serious challenge of the season, the fans were already focusing on No. 1 Notre Dame, which the Mountaineers will meet—possibly for the national championship—in the Fiesta Bowl. No ORANGE CRUSHED! bumper stickers were to be found, but if you wanted a T-shirt that depicted a mountain man clutching a leprechaun, you were in business.
November 28, 1988
The only other invitation to a major postseason game that West Virginia has received was to the Sugar Bowl after the 1953 season. "It's got me nervous," said Nehlen last Friday. Said Syracuse coach Dick MacPherson, perhaps hoping that the Mountaineers were looking past his team, "I like that they're talking about national championships. What they should be talking about is the record they need to get there."
Nehlen and MacPherson talk to each other almost weekly, except for the 10 days or so before their teams square off. They have been good friends since the '60s, when both were assistants at Cincinnati, and games between their schools arouse conflicting sentiments. Said Nehlen on Friday, "He's a good guy who's a credit to the coaching profession, and I'd like to kick his rump."
Last year the Orange attained their first 11-0 regular season by rump-kicking West Virginia in a 32-31 thriller. Revenge was one of several points the Mountaineers' offensive linemen addressed in their regular Friday night psych-up session. The five starters—average size: 6'3", 271 pounds—have been together since 1984, when West Virginia wound up 8-4 after a 7-1 start. They were determined not to fade this year. "When we huddled on the first series," recalls tackle Rick Phillips, "we said, 'Let's do this one for us.' "
And do it they did. West Virginia proceeded to blast through Syracuse on an 11-play, 60-yard drive, which was capped by fullback Craig Taylor's one-yard plunge. The only time Harris needed to cock his arm was to pump-fake. In all, the Mountaineers gained 312 yards rushing, twice what the Orange had been allowing per game. Tailback A.B. Brown ran for 103 yards on 19 carries, Harris for 99 on 20. He was never sacked.
"We play so well as a group," says guard John Stroia. "Sometimes we don't even make line calls; we don't need to." Center Kevin Koken, who last week underwent six hours of therapy a day for a bruised knee and ankle, described the camaraderie among the linemen as "like going into war with your family."
"Koken couldn't even walk on Wednesday," said Nehlen. "With commitment like that, even I can't screw 'em up."
Harris had his usual productive game. Syracuse went with a two-deep zone to deny him the long strike, and indeed his two bomb attempts fell incomplete. So he scrambled and threw short, completing eight of 16 passes for 114 yards.
Syracuse's attack was inept. On their first seven possessions the Orangemen turned the ball over five times. The last of these was Edwards's interception, which happened with 8:34 left in the third quarter. Edwards flew in front of Daryl Johnston in the flat, tipped the ball with one hand, latched onto it with both and streaked down the sideline untouched to give West Virginia a 21-3 lead.
From then on West Virginia's D, which had been overshadowed all season by an offense that scored 44.1 points a game, was in the forefront. "Notre Dame will find out that those guys are good," said Syracuse's quarterback Todd Philcox.
As people find out about West Virginia, they can't fail to notice the sweet purity of the state's pride in its team. The university is a highly publicized center of achievement in a state with a gloomy 8.7% unemployment rate. But West Virginians were true to their school long before this crop of Mountaineers rose to the top. Said safety Bo Orlando, "When we were 4-6 [in 1986] and the seniors got introduced before the game, the fans were just as loud then as they were today."
Now, the spotlight of a possible national title game in Tempe, Ariz., will fall on these folks—Major, musket and all. "What I like about this is you have the tradition of Notre Dame—which is the most traditional team—and you have the Cinderella story of West Virginia," says the Fiesta Bowl's executive director, Bruce Skinner.
Says Harris, "Every player dreams of winning a national championship. Now the dream is coming true."
Almost heaven, West Virginia. Almost.