By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
As John Veasey, our esteemed editor, pointed out to you over your Fourth of July breakfast, the Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City has already anointed this year’s Big 12 marquee game as the Nov. 17 Morgantown showdown between West Virginia and Oklahoma.
That, of and by itself, is tall timber indeed, for this is a football conference that is built around the annual showdown between the Sooners and Texas’ Longhorns, two schools that spit out national champions and Heisman Trophy winners like few others in the country.
To say that the upstart Mountaineers are going to muscle their way right past Texas as the Sooners’ top rival this year is saying a lot ... and not nearly enough.
West Virginia is in desperate need of finding someone to replace Pitt and the Backyard Brawl as its rivalry game, for no matter how you look at it, rivalry games give college football its special flavor ... be it the pageantry of Army-Navy, the excitement of Texas’ mascot Bevo the Longhorn or the Sooner Schooner racing across the field or Florida State Seminole spiking his spear into the ground in a head-to-head meeting with the Florida Gators.
In truth, West Virginia brings a very real rivalry into the Big 12 with Oklahoma despite its limited history.
True, it does not carry the weight of the Backyard Brawl as of yet, but it certainly figures to grow into such proportions, for no school — not even Marshall — has had the effect upon WVU that the Sooners have, save for Pitt.
You have to go back to the beginning of the modern era of football at West Virginia, to the 1982 season, a time when Don Nehlen’s program was just entering its third year of rebuilding.
On Sept. 11, the Mountaineers traveled to Oklahoma, a game they figured to have as much chance of winning as Cassius Clay had of whipping Sonny Liston when they first met. The last time WVU had traveled to Norman was in 1978, four years earlier. Oklahoma was ranked No. 2 in the nation and featured Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims and Outland Trophy winner Greg Roberts.
The Sooners embarrassed WVU, turning a 45-3 lead midway through the third quarter into a 52-10 route in which almost everyone played but the driver of the Sooner Schooner.
“In that 1978 game,” Nehlen once recalled, “Oklahoma’s starters didn’t even wear their shoulder pads the second half. They were on the sidelines and spent the whole half signing autographs and shaking hands with fans.
“I didn’t plan on taking my team out there and killing those horses (pulling the Sooner Schooner after each TD); we planned on giving them plenty of rest,” he added.
It was a day much like the ones we have been experiencing lately, thermometer up around 100 degrees, when WVU returned to Norman, Jeff Hostetler having replaced Oliver Luck at quarterback by now, and making his first Mountaineer start against the nation’s No. 9 team.
Nehlen had turned the offseason into a crusade, studying Oklahoma’s record-shattering wishbone, talking with Big 8 coaching friends who had faced such speed, pushing his players to reach heights they never had reached previously.
Nehlen made a couple of strategic decisions. He felt his defense, anchored by All-American and Hall of Fame linebacker Darryl Talley, middle linebacker Dennis Fowlkes, and defensive tackle Todd Campbell could not be pushed around, so he dared Oklahoma to throw while at the same time opting to turn Hostetler loose and let him air the ball out.
Nehlen covered everything before the game. He had WVU convinced the heat could not beat them and he had them convinced that a couple of early scores as they adjusted to Oklahoma’s speed wouldn’t stop them.
Sure enough, Oklahoma scored touchdowns each of the first two times it had the ball but WVU didn’t blink, fighting back to make it 14-13 with just 13 seconds left in the half.
Oklahoma was thinking of going in and regrouping but Nehlen had other ideas. He stunned them with an onside kick — which has to go down as one of the great play calls in WVU history — that West Virginia recovered and turned into a Hostetler to Darrell Miller TD pass that gave WVU a 20-14 lead at halftime.
The second half was all WVU and they wound up outscoring Oklahoma, 41-13, and outgaining the Sooners 443-239 in the final three quarters. Hostetler threw for 321 yards and four TDs in his Mountaineer debut.
Of such things are rivalries born, but this one has had another chapter as both sides recall, WVU recovering from the most devastating loss in its history, losing to a four-touchdown underdog Pitt team in the Backyard Brawl that sent Rich Rodriguez scurrying to Michigan after blowing a shot at the national title against the Panthers.
With interim coach Bill Stewart at the helm, WVU again went out west and ran over and around Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, 48-28, earning Stewart his dream job.
And so it is that when Oklahoma comes to Milan Puskar Stadium this year for what figures to be a huge showdown, it will be in a rivalry setting and authoring another chapter on what figures to be the hottest thread to run through WVU football for now and forever.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.