Don't get them wrong. The Mountaineers of West Virginia weren't complaining about their shiny new rankings in the polls that came out Sunday. They just had the feeling, as John Denver once crooned about their state, that they should have been there yesterday...yesterda-AAAY.
After West Virginia's 17-14 upset of Miami last Saturday in Morgantown, the nation's lowest-ranked undefeated team was elevated from No. 9 to No. 5 in the AP poll and from No. 6 to No. 3 in the USA Today/CNN poll. The Mountaineers had been irked in recent weeks because they were repeatedly ranked below teams with losses, and even after Sunday's ballots were tallied, they still sat behind once-beaten Florida State and Notre Dame in one poll and only the Seminoles in the other. "For nine weeks," said tailback Robert Walker after the game, "we got no respect."
A sensitive crowd, these West Virginians. While Mountaineer fans delight in the antics of the coonskin-capped, musket-toting yahoo who serves as the school mascot, one sure way to lose your front teeth is to walk into a bar in this state and utter the word hillbilly. The locals even suspect that geographical bias was behind West Virginia's low rating among poll voters. There could be something to that, although a likelier culprit is the team's schedule, which features cream puffs Eastern Michigan, Maryland, Missouri, Pitt, Rutgers and Temple, whose combined record on Sunday was 17-47-1. Truth is, no one—the Mountaineers included—knew how good West Virginia was. Miami would serve as a yardstick.
The Hurricanes, who entered the game 8-1 and ranked No. 4 in both polls, had hoped to trounce the Mountaineers, thereby racking up enough style points with the voters to keep alive their slim national championship hopes. Victory would also assure the Hurricanes of their third straight Big East title, a decoration for which they could not have cared less. After the game, when a reporter tried to cheer up Miami defensive end Kevin Patrick with the news that his team might still wind up sharing the conference title, Patrick said, "It's over. You may as well put us at No. 100. After the national championship, what else is there to play for?"
While Boston College had burnished the league's reputation with its upset of Notre Dame, Miami and West Virginia seemed intent—for the game's first 30 minutes, anyway—on putting offensive football back several decades. A brief catalog of the slapstick:
Hurricane quarterback Ryan Collins set the tone by fumbling a snap on Miami's first possession (a gaffe not to be confused with the unexpected shotgun snap that later in the first half would hit him in the belly and fall to the turf). This was followed by a botched Mountaineer field goal attempt, an interception thrown by Collins, another botched Mountaineer field goal attempt, a lost fumble by Miami tailback James Stewart and another interception thrown by Collins. However, West Virginia did convert Stewart's fumble into Tom Mazzone's 22-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead, the points that eventually were the margin of victory in the team's biggest win since it beat Penn State en route to an 11-0 record five years ago.
It was in 1988 that quarterback Major Harris led the Mountaineers to within one game—a Fiesta Bowl loss to Notre Dame—of a national championship. Some of the schoolboys who signed with West Virginia after that glorious season are now fifth-year seniors, including strong safety Mike Collins. "I expected to play for the national championship," says Collins, who had an interception and seven solo tackles against Miami. "I didn't come here to sit by and watch us have mediocre seasons."
After Harris led West Virginia to an 8-3-1 record in '89, his final season, mediocrity is what Collins got through 4-7, 6-5 and 5-4-2 years. With a small, mostly rural population to draw from in-state, the Mountaineers can't simply reload; they have to rebuild. That's why some 50 muscular adolescents in letter jackets of various colors were milling awkwardly in the winner's locker room on Saturday. They were recruits from all over the country, imported for the Big Game.
When you're the coach at West Virginia, as Don Nehlen has been for the past 14 years, you sell the Big Game every year. Son, you can be a part of this. You sell the palatial facilities, which would make anyone's Top 10. There's not much else to sell. Have I mentioned, son, that West Virginia is the handblown-glass capital of the Western Hemisphere? And you welcome everyone: two-sport athletes, walk-ons, transfers (juco and otherwise). Give me your poor, your hungry, your disgruntled, your underrated.
One such refugee is quarterback Jake Kelchner, who originally signed with Notre Dame but was expelled from school after struggling in class and being arrested for driving while intoxicated, pleading guilty to reckless driving. Kelchner, who's from Berwick, Pa., transferred to West Virginia, where he joined some of his high school teammates and became one of the final pieces of the puzzle. He entered the Miami game as the nation's leader in passing efficiency. However, the Mountaineer aerial attack, which relies heavily on play action, clicks only when the ground game is effective. Against the Hurricanes' ferocious front four, the West Virginia offense didn't get in sync until the Mountaineers' first possession of the second half, when Kelchner led a 13-play, 66-yard scoring drive that put the Mountaineers ahead 10-7.
Defensively West Virginia wanted to take away the run and force Collins, a sophomore making only his fifth start, to beat them with his arm. He nearly did. Early in the fourth quarter, with Miami at the Mountaineer 42, Collins scrambled under heavy pressure. Pinned against the right sideline, he spun out of trouble, raced back across the field and lofted a gorgeous 40-yard rainbow to wide receiver A.C. Tellison. Three running plays later the Hurricanes took the lead, 14-10.
But with 7:30 to go, Mike Baker's slashing 28-yard punt return gave the Mountaineers the ball on the Miami 30. Two plays later Walker, who was on his way to his sixth straight 100-yard rushing game, got the call. The play was a simple run off left tackle behind Rich Braham, a walk-on out of Morgantown's own University High who turned into a four-year starter and Kodak All-America. Braham laid a nice kickout block on Patrick, fullback Rodney Woodard took out two linebackers, and Walker went 19 yards through a hole the size of a country road.
After the Mountaineer D stood its ground and the offense ran out the clock, the field was overrun with whooping celebrants, who reduced both goalposts to scrap metal with alarming swiftness. To outsiders it was chaos. To West Virginians it was, well, almost heaven.