Brady Hoke has got me reminiscing a little bit. Last weekend, Michigan’s say-it-like-it-is football coach told a group of Wolverine fans in Grand Rapids, Mich., that Notre Dame was “chickening out”
of its longtime series with Michigan when it ends in 2014.
Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson also has me feeling a little nostalgic. On Tuesday, Pederson said he was “optimistic” the Pitt-Penn State football rivalry
will once again be resumed on a semi-annual basis. The two schools first began playing football games in 1893 and last met in 2000. When asked about the Backyard Brawl, though, Pederson was not quite as optimistic. Since 1943, the Pitt-WVU game was played every year before ending in 2011.
Yes, conference realignment is clearly erasing a lot of history.
Last year, six longtime football rivalries ended, most notably the Backyard Brawl, the Border Showdown (Kansas-Missouri) and the Lone Star Showdown (Texas-Texas A&M). A year before that, in 2010, Nebraska’s move to the Big Ten wiped out four calendar-marking football rivalries, the biggest being the Cornhuskers’ annual game against Oklahoma.
I can remember a time growing up when our Thanksgiving afternoon consisted of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and the Oklahoma-Nebraska game on ABC at noon. Texas-Texas A&M was also played on or around Thanksgiving Day, as was the Backyard Brawl in latter years when the Big East was searching for rivalries to put on television.
None of those games moved the needle the way West Virginia-Pitt did.
Presently, these four traditional college football programs - Nebraska, Texas A&M, Missouri and West Virginia - have one thing in common: none of them are playing their biggest rivals anymore.
Removed from Nebraska’s Hit List are Colorado, Missouri and Oklahoma; Texas A&M can no longer target Baylor, Texas Tech and Texas; Missouri no longer seeks and destroys Kansas, Iowa State and Illinois while the Mountaineers can no longer look forward to their annual fall meetings with Pitt, Penn State, Virginia Tech and Syracuse.
Since I have already written a book of short stories about some of my most memorable WVU-Pitt games
[shameless plug, I know ;)], I thought I might as well list some WVU-Penn State games falling into that same category: Oct. 22, 1977 – Penn State 49, West Virginia 28
This was my first WVU-Penn State game as a nine-year-old sitting in the WVU student section at Old Mountaineer Field, and there were A LOT of things going on up there that this small-town West Virginia kid didn’t quite understand. Think the Do Lung Bridge scene from Apocalypse Now
and that’s about the best way I can describe what was happening around me. As for the game, I remember West Virginia getting two early scores before the Nittany Storm Troopers began their blitzkrieg.Oct. 25, 1980 – Penn State 20, West Virginia 15
Cold. Rainy. Miserable … and West Virginia had a great opportunity to snap Penn State’s long winning streak after it recovered an onside kick at the 48 late in the game and was driving for the go-ahead score when the Lions picked off an Oliver Luck pass at the goal line. If you recall, that was the game when Penn State won the coin toss, got the football, and was also able to take the wind. Only Joe Pa could pull that one off.
Penn State QBs Todd Blackledge and Jeff Hostetler managed just 24 yards through the air, but Booker Moore and Curt Warner made up for it by running for a combined 181 yards and scoring a TD. Yes, another stinker of a game, and, yes, another Penn State victory over the Mountaineers.Oct. 22, 1983 – Penn State 41, West Virginia 23
Believe it or not, Penn State beat West Virginia for the 25th straight time and the Nittany Lion students thought so much of the victory that they stormed the field and tore down the goal posts! What? That’s right, the Penn State students went bonkers because the Mountaineers were ranked fourth in the country at the time and were favored to win the game. Usually, Penn State quarterbacks couldn't hit the broadside of a barn - that is unless they were playing the Mountaineers. Doug Strang lit up the WVU secondary for 220 yards and three touchdowns and John L. Williams ran for 106 more in State’s 18-point triumph.Oct. 27, 1984 – West Virginia 17, Penn State 14
“Harvey Smith and Wayne Brown are set up out to the right, the flanker out wide, and the handoff is given to Randolph with blockers, swings out to the right, cuts down over the 20 … the 15 … the 10 … the five … TOUCHDOWN WEST VIRGINIA! Goooo Pat! Scott Barrows with a block for the Mountaineers – Barrows pulling and leading the blocking and Pat Randolph racing into the end zone and West Virginia scores!” – Jack Fleming.Oct. 31, 1987 – Penn State 25, West Virginia 21
For many years, whenever I would get together with people from Pitt or Syracuse, we would always joke about the shenanigans that always seem to go on up at Penn State – crooked sidelines, relatives of Penn State players serving as referees, mysterious calls that always favored the home team, so on and so forth. Well, one of the greatest plays in WVU history – Major Harris’ fourth-quarter-scrambling- sideline-to-sideline-long-pass-play to fullback Craig Taylor that would have put a dagger in Penn State’s heart – was called back because an offensive lineman crossed the line of scrimmage.
Sadly, the zebras got that one right and the guilty party was none other than offensive guard John Stroia. “What I should have done was fall down, but what I did was I turned around and I started running back toward the line,” Stroia told me a few years ago. “They nabbed me.”
Ugh, they sure did! Oct. 29, 1988 – West Virginia 51, Penn State 30
“For over 30 years, our faithful have been bedeviled by the Penn State Nittany Lions. Starting with the late Art Lewis, after he beat them three times in a row, the Nits began teeing off on West Virginia … Gene Corum, Jim Carlen, Bobby Bowden and Frank Cignetti took lump after lump from the Blue and White. Finally, in 1984, Don Nehlen put a stop to it. West Virginia won 17-14, but the Gold and Blue fans got so out of hand that Papa Joe Paterno had the pleasure of calling off the game with less than a minute to go, and that’s typical.
“In 1985, 86 and 87, Penn State regained control but now it’s 1988 and the invaders from the north are here, sneaking in to try and smoke out West Virginia one more time. For State, a winning season is at stake; for West Virginia, an undefeated season is on the line along with the Mountaineers’ national ranking. One difference: the hordes from the north are the underdogs. I expect them to come out inside a Trojan Horse.
“They are still led by a crafty little guy with horned-rimmed glasses – the man who promotes himself as the savior of college football - but West Virginia is not fooled on this October day. He is Joe Paterno, the Darth Vader from Mt. Nittany, and he’ll do anything to win this football game to pacify Penn State’s new-found horde of hors d’oeuvre-champing, wine-sipping, Mercedes-driving, yuppie followers. MY FRIENDS THIS ISN'T A FOOTBALL GAME TODAY … IT IS A CRUSADE! We need you, wherever you are this afternoon! Hoist the battle flag, find a good rock for cover and stay with us because the invaders are here as the hills of West Virginia resound with the sounds of the Mountaineers in combat, and the West Virginia University Mountaineers are on the air! – Jack Fleming.Oct. 26, 1991 – Penn State 51, West Virginia 6
More than 20 years later, I can still hear that lion roar Penn State would put on the PA system after each good play made by one of their players. Actually, I think the roar ran continuously for the entire second half of this 1991 loss to the Lions. When things were getting way out of hand, Don Nehlen pulled out all of his starters to make sure he had enough healthy players for the following week’s game against Rutgers - which he did, a 28-3 Mountaineer win.
One other thing I recall from that Penn State game was angling to get this picture of Michael Fragale “assisting” Dr. Jerry Punch during his sideline coverage of the game for ESPN. Fragale is a big NASCAR fan and Mr. Punch is considered NASCAR royalty - at least that’s what they tell me. By the way, photography is clearly not one of my strengths.Oct. 24, 1992 – Penn State 40, West Virginia 26
The game was tied 26-all with 7:08 left when WVU linebacker Matt Taffoni recovered a Penn State fumble at the 45. However, the Mountaineers couldn’t get a first down and were forced to punt. Just prior to that, fullback Rodney Woodard fumbled at the Penn State 1, erasing a certain Mountaineer score, plus, Adrian Murrell’s 23-yard TD run early in the fourth quarter was brought back after Lorenzo Styles was called for a phantom hold (probably by one of the Gumans) that the Nittanys always seemed to get late in games. Ritchie Anderson scored the go-ahead touchdown with 52 seconds left and the Lions then tacked on a pick-six score with 38 seconds remaining – one of two interception returns for TDs by the State defense for the day. Other than that, it was a pretty mistake-free afternoon for the Gold and Blue in what was to be the final game played in the 59-game series.
How did I do? Send me your WVU-Penn State memories on twitter.