By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It is getting to be late September and if there isn’t yet a chill in the air, there certainly is a thrill in the air.
It’s big game time.
LSU comes to town sporting an unbeaten 3-0 record and a No. 2/3 ranking, a national contender from the SEC, and this has become the talk of Morgantown, knocking even the conference realignment mess onto the back pages of the sports sections.
The town is beginning to buzz, knowing that there is no team beyond LSU on the schedule that West Virginia University can’t beat. By the same token, this is a “prove yourself” game for the Bayou Tigers before they venture full-time into the brutal SEC schedule.
They know it’s an important game, a tough road game in the midst of a tough schedule.
It should not bother them.
“There are guys that understand big games, loud crowds and big stadiums,” coach Les Miles said. “It is a nice opportunity to start the season with some quality experiences that will lend us to the remainder of the schedule.”
Some teams can be intimidated. Not LSU, a team that plays almost every week before crowds and in venues similar to WVU’s.
“This won’t be foreign to this LSU team when we go to West Virginia. We will expect a loud crowd, expect a quality opponent and expect to play a tight ball game. Those things benefit us,” Miles said. “Certainly the media exposure, when we are in as many homes as our Tigers are, is something that speaks to the recruiting and the reputation of the program. I’ve enjoyed how we’ve started the season to this point.”
They also will be playing at a venue that is used to hosting big games, a stadium that dates back to the 1980s and that hosted enough important victories that the coach who coached there for the first 20 years, Don Nehlen, became a College Hall of Fame member.
You ask to come up with some of the games that he remembers best and he begins with a 1984 victory over Penn State, West Virginia’s first victory over the Nittany Lions in 28 years, having only one tie to show for its efforts.
“That was really something,” Nehlen said of the 17-14 victory. “I’d only been here for four years and they were so far ahead of us when I came in.”
John Antonik of the WVU sports information department, in writing about this game, noted that a sign hung over the wall behind the Penn State bench at Mountaineer Field, as it was called then.
It read: “28 years, 2,800 tears, 28,000 beers.”
It had been since 1955 when WVU had beaten Penn State. They made the game a rare night game.
Then, while at Lakeview the night before the game, the players would gather in a room and watch a movie, but before that started, with the lights down, Nehlen came in, stood at the podium, lit only by the podium’s light, and told the team how they were going to play the best game of their lives the next day.
“We went through a mental exercise that night that was so intense and he allowed us to literally see into the future,” All-America tackle Brian Jozwiak recalled for Antonik.
The key play in the game turned out to be a 26-yard run by Pat Randolph on a play they seldom used called “bingo right.” It was a play Nehlen had the team visualize the night before the game.
Penn State was around for the next memorable game Nehlen coached in Mountaineer Field, that being during the undefeated 1988 season when the Mountaineers buried Penn State, the game in which the most memorable play in WVU history occurred.
Early in the game, with WVU at the Penn State 26, College Football Hall of Fame quarterback Major Harris came to the line of scrimmage confused, took the snap, spun the wrong way and ran the most naked bootleg ever seen, making seven players miss as he ran into the end zone, as much out of fear as anything else.
And what did Harris do after scoring the touchdown? He apologized to Nehlen for breaking the play.
Let’s just say Nehlen didn’t chew him out.
If Nehlen had any one big game memory, though, it came from that same 1988 season, the final home game, Syracuse the opponent. A year earlier WVU went to Syracuse trying to spoil their undefeated season and failed.
Now the roles were reversed, Syracuse standing at 8-2 and WVU at 10-0.
WVU trounced the Orangemen, Willie Edwards sealing the game with an interception return for a touchdown.
But it was what happened after the game that was so memorable.
The team had retired to the locker room when someone from the sports information department came in and grabbed Nehlen aside.
“Don,” he said, “the fans, they’re not leaving. No one has left the stadium. They’re waiting for you guys to come back.”
“Do football teams do that?” Nehlen asked, innocently enough.
“I don’t know,” was the answer, “but I’m telling you the stands are absolutely packed, and they aren’t going anywhere.”
Nehlen turned to his players and said, “Hey, gang, the fans are out there waiting for us. Go take a victory lap.”
Thinking about it on Tuesday, Nehlen said, “My guys, they had half their pads off, but we went back out, even though most of the kids didn’t have their shoulder pads on.”
The victory lap completed the day and the unbeaten regular season.
Perhaps the most hard-fought, maybe unexpected win for Nehlen on his home turf came in 1993 when Miami came to town, a game that actually dwarfed this LSU invasion, if you can imagine it.
Antonik noted that the local paper had planned a 24-page special section but had to add eight pages because of the demand for advertisements. The local weatherman whipped the fans into frenzy when he gave the weather from the Mountain Lair in a pep rally setting.
You couldn’t get tickets. The student section overflowed as the crowd soared to a record 70,222.
WVU was enjoying an unbeaten season, and Miami was ranked fourth in the country.
“At the time,” Nehlen recalled Tuesday, “they were probably the marquee football program in the country.”
Media came in from all over, press row being jammed together in the press box.
And the football game did not disappoint, a black-and-blue 17-14 victory for the Mountaineers, Miami’s first loss as a member of the Big East.
The overflow crowd flowed over the walls and rushed the field, tore down the goal posts and, yes, burned themselves a couch or two in what was then the Morgantown victory celebration tradition.
Nehlen’s view of the game? Exactly as he liked it:
“That was an old-fashioned kick-in-the-butt, a Pittsburgh Steelers-Baltimore Ravens week.”
Nehlen’s departure as coach did nothing to lessen the atmosphere at Mountaineer Field, which would be renamed Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium, for in the early 2000s, once Rich Rodriguez got his program going, there were games to remember.
It began on Oct. 22, 2003 when WVU tore Virginia Tech apart, 28-7, as Quincy Wilson rushed for 178 yards on 33 carries and Travis Garvin broke the game open, latching onto a Rasheed Marshall pass for a 93-yard touchdown.
Later in that 2003 season WVU beat Pitt, 52-31, as John Pennington, like Wilson a West Virginia native, made a great catch just before halftime to get the Mountaineer offense rolling. Wilson took care of the rest and finished with 208 rushing yards.
However, the signature big home game in the Rodriguez era came on Oct. 15, 2005, when a good Louisville team came to town and was pounding WVU, 24-7, with a little more than eight minutes to play.
Quarterback Patrick White, who had started the game on the bench but replaced an injured Adam Bednarik, engineered a furious comeback while his running mate Steve Slaton introduced himself to the world with six touchdowns, three in overtime, while gaining 188 yards on 31 carries.
Now the stage is set to add another chapter to the big game history of Mountaineer Field or Milan Puskar Stadium, take your pick, as LSU is in town to christen in the Dana Holgorsen era.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.