This time the usually sure-handed Cedric Thomas couldn’t hang on to the football, and it wound up costing West Virginia its best opportunity in more than 20 years to upset 13th-ranked Penn State.
The Mountaineers had overcome the elements – a freezing rain and 25 mph wind – and a powerful Nittany Lion defense to make it a one-possession game with two minutes remaining when WVU recovered an onside kick in Penn State territory.
With 1:30 showing on the clock, quarterback Oliver Luck tried a pass down the middle to Thomas, but the senior split end couldn’t hang on to Luck’s high throw. The ball deflected from the hands of Penn State’s Pete Harris right into the arms of his younger brother Giuseppe, who slid to the turf at the 20. Game over. It was West Virginia’s 22nd consecutive loss to the Lions.
“I should have caught it,” said Thomas afterward. “Any ball that hits my hands I should catch. Sure, it was high but I could have caught it. If I do, we were ready to win this one.”
Misfortune (as it had many times throughout the years against Penn State) plagued West Virginia throughout the game, beginning with the opening coin toss. Nehlen instructed his two captains to take the wind if they won the flip. West Virginia won it, but the referee misunderstood the West Virginia players, claiming they said they were deferring until the second half. As it turned out, Penn State not only got the ball at beginning of the game, but more importantly, had the wind for the first and fourth quarters.
Nehlen complained bitterly to no avail.
Trailing 10-0 early in the third quarter (with more than half of the stadium now empty), West Virginia finally got on the board when Mike Dawson blocked Ralph Giacomarro’s punt. The football spun into the end zone where Darryl Talley had a perfect opportunity to scoop it up for an easy touchdown. But the ball squirted through Talley’s arms out of the back of the end zone, so instead of getting six points, West Virginia had to settle for a two-point safety.
On the ensuing kickoff, Steve Newberry took the free kick to the Penn State five. Two plays later, following a WVU penalty, Luck hooked up with flanker Billy Evans on a 22-yard scoring strike to reduce Penn State’s lead to 10-8. WVU’s two-point conversion try failed.
The Mountaineers’ two-point deficit lasted all of 12 seconds, or the amount of time it took Pineville, W.Va., native Curt Warner to take the kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown. Herb Menhart later added a 26-yard field goal to give Penn State a 20-8 lead.
Then a late fumble by PSU backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler led to Walter Easley’s 9-yard touchdown run, setting up West Virginia’s onside kick try.
“I don’t know why we can’t beat Penn State,” Luck said after the game. “Maybe it’s in the stars for us to lose. I feel we’re about on par with them ability-wise, but the last two years we’ve given up the big play to lose, and missed the chance at the big play to win.”
The poor weather conditions forced Penn State to play it close to the vest.
“We were ahead and playing well,” said Paterno. “We were playing well defensively so there was no sense in getting foolish out there.”