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October 12, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: Painful loss still lingers for Kelchner

MORGANTOWN — By now, 18 years later, you’d think some of the pain would have subsided.

By now, you’d think, all the wonderful memories of an unbeaten 1993 regular season would have deodorized the stench of defeat in the 1994 Sugar Bowl for Jake Kelchner.

But no, it won’t drift off into nowhere the way all the good things that team did during West Virginia University’s last undefeated regular season that brought it to the doorstep of what could have been its first national championship have done.

“It’s hard to swallow, even today,” Kelchner said.

Jake “The Snake” Kelchner was one half of a two-header quarterback monster coach Don Nehlen had created for his run through the regular season in 1993. A free-spirited, natural leader who had transferred in from Notre Dame, Kelchner was an accurate passer as he shared the position with Darren Studstill.

They had survived a difficult schedule through 11 regular-season games and got to the Sugar Bowl, facing Florida of the SEC. It had been a long, tough road that had ended with a pair of magnificent victories over Miami at home and Boston College on the road.

The score of each was 17-14, and it carried them to the brink of greatness.

Then Florida beat them, 41-7, in one of the ugliest games ever played by a West Virginia team.

Kelchner thought back to the moment the other day as he joined a half dozen other Mountaineer quarterbacks for a reunion prior to the Bowling Green game at the Waterplace Hotel here.

“Going into the season the goals were win the national title with going undefeated was second. We did everything we wanted to do,” Kelchner said. “Every great team always has that one game that almost bites you. With us it was Boston College, but we pulled through it.”

WVU came into that B.C. game off a stunning victory over Miami witnessed by a still-stadium record 70,222 fans, Robert Walker putting the Mountaineers ahead for good on touchdown run and then Kelchner sealing the deal with a 40-yard completion that allowed the clock to run out.

Kelchner, however, injured his arm in the game and wasn’t at his best for the Eagles. WVU trailed by 11 with 13 minutes to go when Nehlen sent Mike Logan and Charles Emanuel on a blitz, Logan making a hit that caused a fumble, setting up a final drive for Studstill.

His game-winning pass to Eddie Hill is among the most memorable completions in the school’s history.

And so it was that the Mountaineers were flying high into the Sugar Bowl, never ever expecting the blowout that lay ahead.

“The disappointment at the time was immeasurable because we did not fulfill everything we wanted to do,” Kelchner said, addressing why the pain still lingered. “The second part of that is the way we lost. We lost in a bad way. It wasn’t just like we lost a tough game. It was nuts.”

To Kelchner, Florida wasn’t that good a team, not good enough to beat the real WVU team like that.

“It was all us. It was what we did to ourselves, the turnovers and things we did to ourselves,” he said.

The shame is that there was so much more to that team than just the lingering disappointment.

“My senior season, ’93, we thought we were going to be pretty good. First game of the year, we have a lot of seniors but we’re real thin on the line and real thin in the running back situation,” Kelchner said. “First quarter, Jon Jones, senior running back, breaks his ankle. Second quarter, Dan Harless blows his knee out. Starting center.

“There was no backup plan.”

Two quarters into the year and there was a huge hill standing before the Mountaineers to climb.

“You start thinking, we have a shot at this this year. We’re trying to go undefeated and win the whole thing. You know how it is when you are working on a project and all of a sudden you have two devastating hits, everyone starts thinking ‘What’s next? Is this the way it’s going to go?’” Kelchner said.

In that opening game against Eastern Michigan, they had a revelation.

“We all had to sit there and look at each other and realize we were going to have some adversity,” he said.

There were some tough games, tougher maybe than any undefeated team had to endure.

They beat Virginia Tech, 14-13, and the next week edged Louisville, 36-34, before closing the season with the consecutive 17-14 victories over Miami and Boston College.

That’s four victories by a combined nine points, a sign of character even more than of ability.

“The Big East then was like the SEC is today. We had to make sure we stayed focused, but we pulled through,” Kelchner said.

Kelchner is more settled down now than he was back in the day, a family man and a business owner. Even his famous mullet has disappeared, the result of leaving college and having to go out and look for a job after becoming a football nomad and playing in such places as Canada, Spain, Florida, Texas and Milwaukee.

Regrets? None, but he comes close thinking he might have liked to have played in the offense Dana Holgorsen is putting on the field these days.

“If I had a choice, I’d throw 65 times a game. What quarterback wouldn’t want to do that?” he said.

Email Bob Hertzel at Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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