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The Mountaineers Sure Know How To Climb
Douglas S. Looney
October 29, 1984
By beating BC and the redoubtable Doug Flutie, West Virginia showed it's ready to scale its way into a major bowl
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October 29, 1984

The Mountaineers Sure Know How To Climb

By beating BC and the redoubtable Doug Flutie, West Virginia showed it's ready to scale its way into a major bowl

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When the delirium finally began to subside after West Virginia's 21-20 upset of previously undefeated Boston College, a.k.a. the University of Flutie, last Saturday in Morgantown, Mountaineer coach Don Nehlen knew exactly how important the triumph was. "It means," said Nehlen, whose team is now 6-1, "that with four games left, we can lose only five games this season."

Indeed, in a year in which upsets are the norm—among the teams that have been somebody's No. 1 and have tumbled are Miami, Auburn, Nebraska, Ohio State, UCLA, Texas, SMU, Arizona State and Clemson—modesty would appear to be becoming. "Whenever you get to thinkin' you're pretty good," said Nehlen, "you get your butt kicked." To quote George Bush, sort of. So it may be time to pity poor West Virginia, which had been safely hidden in the hills playing mediocre or worse teams, including Ohio and Louisville. Though the Mountaineers' schedule remains far from formidable, Saturday's win, their fourth straight over BC, makes them fresh-faced contenders, if not for No. 1, then for a major-bowl bid, something they haven't received since 1954. And if West Virginia beats Penn State this weekend, for the first time since 1955, it will all but lock up the Lambert Trophy as the premier team in the East.

To beat third-ranked BC, the Mountaineers had to compensate for a lethargic offense that behaved as if it had altitude sickness. West Virginia did so by playing defense with the steely resolve of a classic mountain man and the brashness of a riverboat gambler. Who would have thought the Mountaineers could get away with blitzing BC quarterback Doug Flutie, a master at evading hell-bent-for-leather pass rushers? Conventional wisdom holds that forcing Flutie from the pocket can be very detrimental to your chances of victory. West Virginia didn't buy the conventional wisdom. After the Mountaineers beat the Eagles 27-17 in 1983, despite Flutie's 418-yard passing performance, Nehlen and his defensive coordinator, Dennis Brown, committed themselves to a pressure defense for the '84 encounter. This meant that West Virginia would rush as many as eight men, including the free safety. That required the Mountaineer secondary to play tight, near-perfect man-for-man pass defense.

Isn't that an awfully risky thing to do? "Of course," said Brown after the game, "but any time you try anything against Flutie, it's chancy."

What made the West Virginia win even more satisfying is that Flutie didn't have a particularly crummy day. He completed 21 of 42 throws for 299 yards and one touchdown. Penalties nullified another 140 yards, including a 17-yard TD pass to Gerard Phelan, and Flutie's receivers dropped enough balls to warrant his coming down with a case of the mutters. Of course, the Mountaineers' defensive pressure had a lot to do with the incompletions. Said Flutie afterward, "They were comin' all day."

Bear in mind that BC came into the game with the nation's No. 2 scoring offense, averaging 39.5 points a game. In the second half Boston College failed to score a point, and in 12 third-down situations during the game could convert just one. Tailback Troy Stradford, who represents BC's running game, netted eight yards on six carries, and the Eagles' total was all of 19.

Boston College started well, scoring on four of its first six possessions—two field goals by Kevin Snow, a 24-yard draw for a touchdown by fullback Steve Strachan and a 42-yard bomb from Flutie to flanker Kelvin Martin. However, West Virginia strong safety Anthony Daniels was playing one of the best games of his career and in the second quarter he put his finger on why the Mountaineer defense wasn't doing better. "Our guys don't want to play football," Daniels told Brown. "They want to fight."

Brown promptly convened a sideline meeting and dressed down the troops. "This isn't the Friday Night Fights," he said. "This is Saturday afternoon football. We want fighters in technique, not fighters in boxing gloves." Suitably chastened, his defenders buckled their chin straps and put their fists on ice.

Still, at the half the Mountaineers were down 20-6 and wearing hang-dog looks. In the dressing room Brown wrote "20" on the blackboard—representing BC's 20 points—and then said, "If 20 points are still on the board at the end of the game, we'll win." Which was a nice way of saying, "All you have to do is play perfect football in the second half, and maybe our offense will bail us out. Maybe."

West Virginia's attack suffers because the level of play at quarterback isn't what it has been in recent years, which isn't surprising. The Mountaineers had Jeff Hostetler, now with the Giants, in 1982 and '83, and before him, the multitalented Oliver Luck. The successor, senior Kevin White, isn't in their league, except when it comes to winning. Somehow, some way, he completed 17 of 30 passes for 227 yards. Not spectacular, only semi-Flutie-like. And, somehow, some way, with the Mountaineers trailing 20-9, White connected with split end Willie Drewrey on a 52-yarder, which set up a one-yard scoring plunge by Ron Wolfley on the first play of the fourth quarter. And somehow, some way, White drove his team 80 yards for the winning touchdown. John Gay carried the last four times, blasting over from the five with 4:52 to play. Those two touchdowns, coupled with Paul Woodside's three field goals, just did it.

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