In the eyes of West Virginia football fans, the Big East officiating crew of Soffey, Crawley, Rutter, Trainer, Dancewicz, Lohr and Lucas were no different than Barker, Gonzales, McCord, Martinez and Sturgis – the five infamous burglars arrested for breaking into the Watergate hotel.
That’s because they believed an injustice was committed on Saturday, Oct. 17, 1992 when West Virginia lost 20-17 to 14th-ranked Syracuse.
The crime began with West Virginia leading the Orange 17-13 and 3:33 remaining in the game.
Syracuse quarterback Marvin Graves scrambled toward the far sideline and was nailed by West Virginia’s Tommy Orr as his right foot hit the out of bounds line. Believing he was hit late, Graves angrily fired the football at Orr’s head. Then Syracuse assistant coach Kevin Rogers stepped in and grabbed Orr by the jersey (all of this was clear on the team video later showed to reporters following coach Don Nehlen’s weekly Tuesday press conference) and that’s when a bench-clearing brawl erupted.
Collins and defensive back David Mayfield got the worst of it. Collins was thrown to the ground and was mauled by several Syracuse players. Mayfield was also caught in the middle of the melee, one injured Syracuse player with a cast on his arm using it as a club on Mayfield’s head. Others were dragging him by his face mask until he was able to bear-crawl his way to safety.
“Ken Warren (the only Syracuse player ejected) was really throwing some blows,” said teammate Al Wooten. “He was going to work. He was hitting some of everybody.”
When the dust settled, West Virginia lost three key defensive players (Michael Collins, Tom Briggs and nickel back Leroy Axem) while Syracuse was down a fourth-string offensive lineman that wasn’t even listed on the two-deep roster. Graves, the guy who started the fight, was allowed to remain in the game.
Later with 1:47 showing on the clock, West Virginia was the victim of two fourth-down penalties that preserved Syracuse’s game-winning drive. The first came on fourth and two from the Syracuse 26 when Graves threw an incomplete pass toward Kenny Ferrell that was eventually waved off because of a delay of game penalty whistled on the Orange.
A second try on fourth and seven proved even more controversial when linebacker Matt Taffoni was called for interfering with Syracuse tight end Chris Gedney on a pass out in the flat that appeared uncatchable. In fact, half of West Virginia’s offensive players were already jogging onto the field when the late flag thrown from the direction of the Syracuse sideline landed on the field.
“The official who called the interference penalty was standing in front of the Syracuse bench,” said Nehlen after the game. “I’m sure he heard and earful from the Syracuse sideline.”
Syracuse had new life at its own 31 and later, a 38-yard pass from Graves to Gedney placed the ball at the WVU 17 with just a minute remaining. That set up Graves’ 17-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Gedney – a scramble play where Gedney was instructed to run toward the back of the end zone while Graves bought time to get away from pressure.
As fate would have it, the guy guarding Gedney on the game-winning score was Collins’ backup John Harper. Naturally Nehlen was furious after the game.
“Their guy throws the ball at one of our players and we get three of our guys thrown out and only one of their guys does, while the guy who threw the ball gets to stay in,” Nehlen said.
The acrimony continued after the game. Syracuse athletic director Jake Crouthamel went to West Virginia’s locker room to complain to Nehlen about Orr’s hit and then later during a telephone interview told a West Virginia reporter that he was bothered by the anger being vented toward Syracuse by WVU fans.
“If you’re saying that the officials robbed West Virginia, I don’t control that,” Crouthamel said.
Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese was also forced to make a statement on the officiating. Tranghese, who was actually at the game but didn’t see the fight because he had left after the third quarter, called the fight “an embarrassment to the conference.”
Tranghese said there was no way he could calm down West Virginia fans bombarding his office with faxes and letters of protest.
“According to the faxes, they want tar and feathering,” Tranghese said. “The thing I can’t do, and this is what fans want, they want me to turn around the results of the game.
“What I can do is work toward making our officials the best they can be and make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.”
“A crime,” is what Nehlen repeated at least six times during his post-game press conference. “I don’t think I’ve ever had one taken away from me like that.”