By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
West Virginia University has to be thinking it has its work cut out for it this week when it ventures into Stillwater, Okla., to face Oklahoma State.
Why shouldn’t the Mountaineers feel that way? The Cowboys are ranked No. 2 in the nation in total offense, averaging 576 yards a game, and the have one of the nation’s best running backs in Joseph Randle, who ranks 14th in the country with 934 total yards and an average of 5.34 yards per carry.
Before, however, you go off the deep end in praising this offense WVU must stop, you might want to stop by WVU’s outside linebacker coach Steve Dunlap’s office in the Puskar Center and check with the veteran coach.
He might even tell you this isn’t the most dangerous offense he has ever faced coming out of Oklahoma State.
See Dunlap was coaching linebackers at WVU back in 1987 when the Mountaineers went to the Sun Bowl and faced an Oklahoma State team that was pretty good on its own … a team that would beat the Mountaineers, 35-33, on a bitter cold, snowy Christmas day in El Paso, Texas.
“I remember we were at the Sun Bowl, and it snowed on the morning of the game. I said, ‘You got to be kidding,’” Dunlap recalled on Tuesday evening.
You might remember the ’87 Mountaineer team. It was born with a quarterback controversy for coach Don Nehlen to work through, having one pretty fair player in Browning Nagle, who would go on to a solid NFL career.
But he lost the job in the spring and transferred to Louisville, leaving WVU with a kid named Major Harris at quarterback.
You can find his plaque at the College Football Hall of Fame.
But when they went to El Paso, Harris was not the best player on the field, for Oklahoma State had a pretty fair starting running back, one who is even better than this year’s star runner, Joseph Randle.
His name is Thurman Thomas, and you can find his plaque in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after a great career in Buffalo and Dallas. Thomas, in that 1985 season, averaged 6.7 yards a carry and absolutely destroyed the Mountaineers in the snow that day, rushing for 157 yards on 33 carries and four touchdowns.
Earlier this year, in town to honor former WVU linebacker and his Buffalo teammate Darryl Talley on his election to the College Football Hall of Fame, Thomas thought back to that game and what it meant to his career.
“You mean the 1987 Snow Bowl?” he laughed. “I tell everybody that was probably one of the reasons why I got drafted with Buffalo because they saw me play in cold weather in the snow.”
Now, listen up on this. Thomas wasn’t the best running back on the Oklahoma State team that year.
“Coach Nehlen would come over and say, ’Boy, that Thurman Thomas is really good,’” Dunlap recalled. “We’d say, ‘Yeah, he’s really good, but that guy that plays behind him is even better.’”
“Oh, you guys always say that,” Nehlen would respond.
Only this time, his coaches weren’t kidding.
The guy behind Thurman Thomas was Barry Sanders.
“He was the best punt and kickoff returner in the nation, probably, that year,” Dunlap recalled.
Statistics, of course, bear all this out. Playing behind Thomas that year, Sanders rushed for 603 yards and 5.7 average per carry, then came back as a senior and averaged 7.6 yards a carry with 19 touchdowns, leading him to the NFL Hall of Fame and a career that might have made him the all-time leading rusher if he had not opted to retire early.
The game was one of the great bowl games of all time, and, as Dunlap remembered it, Thomas and Sanders weren’t the only weapons Oklahoma State had. It had an All-American receiver named Hart Lee Dykes who caught passes from a quarterback named Mike Gundy.
That Mike Gundy, the one coaching Oklahoma State in this weekend’s game and the one who completed 12 of 18 passes for 162 yards in the snow that day, outpassing a struggling Major Harris, who passed for just 54 yards on 7 of 21 passing.
Harris did use his legs for 103 rushing yards on 24 carries, and the Mountaineers even had a runner who outgained Thomas in Anthony “A.B.” Brown, who gained 167 yards on 32 carries, although 134 of those yards came in the first quarter.
All this could just be a prelude to another shootout this week as WVU’s defense, while improved, doesn’t seem ready to be able to match the Oklahoma State firepower while the Mountaineer offense well might rediscover itself in this setting.
And what makes it interesting is that the Mountaineers bring with them a player that in some ways is reminiscent of Barry Sanders himself, at least in the return game and the way he runs in an open field.
Sanders in that 1987 season averaged 31.6 yards on six kickoff returns and 16.3 yards on 15 punt returns, Austin actually possessing a better kickoff return average on 16 returns at 32.9 and an average of 9.2 yards a punt return.
He has scored a touchdown both returning punts and kickoffs and currently has a lifetime average of 26.7 yards per kickoff to 24.5 for Sanders and 12.2 yards per punt return to 11.9 for Sanders.
“Sanders was bigger and stronger, but Tavon is probably faster,” Dunlap said. “He gets around that corner, and no one is going to catch him. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Sanders’ strength made him so unique, but Dunlap believes that Austin in the open field is “every bit as dangerous, absolutely.”
“There have been pro scouts come in here and say it’s sensational what he can do with the ball,” Dunlap said.
The problem this week will be to get the ball in his hands on returns, the Oklahoma State kicker usually soaring his kickoffs beyond the end line of the end zone.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.