When Mike Collins found out that West Virginia was going to be playing Syracuse in the 2012 Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium later this month, his thoughts immediately turned back to a football game he played against the Orange 20 years ago at Mountaineer Field in 1992.
It was then and there that he came to understand that life is not always fair.
“What was fair about that game?” asked Collins, now living and working in Minneapolis. “Me getting pummeled by five different guys – all wearing jersey numbers 70 or higher – and getting kicked out of the game; my backup comes in with less than two minutes left in the game and he hasn’t been playing much (to give up the winning touchdown pass) and they get a pass interference call on a fourth down, which was BS.
“Again, what was fair about that game?”
What is clear and vivid to Collins and many of his Mountaineer teammates may not be quite so clear and vivid to the rest of us, so to refresh your memories, West Virginia was leading the 14th-ranked Orange, 17-13, in a tough, physical football game that was seemingly going in the Mountaineers’ favor. West Virginia’s defense was playing well and had Syracuse’s high-powered offense bottled up for most of the afternoon when the Orange took over at its own 18 with 3:39 remaining.
Then, Syracuse quarterback Marvin Graves took off on an option run to the 27-yard line where he was met by West Virginia defensive back Tommy Orr near the Orange sideline. Graves thought Orr’s hit was late and unnecessary and took an afternoon’s worth of frustration out on him by bouncing the football off the back of his head.
There was a lot of jawing going on between the players and a little pushing and shoving, but that changed when Syracuse assistant coach Kevin Rogers ran over and grabbed Orr by the shoulder pads.
“That kind of set off a powder keg and I vividly remember him grabbing Tommy and just kind of shaking him,” Tom Briggs recalled.
Fists began to fly as West Virginia players ran across the field to join in the melee.
“I was near (the West Virginia) sideline across the field and (assistant coach) Doc Holliday turned red in the face, and I can’t say what he was actually saying, but it was like an old western movie and he led the charge across the field,” defensive back Aaron Beasley remembered. “He said, ‘Don’t let them take you down like that!’ It was like in the movie Braveheart or something.”
“They were trying to disrespect us in our own house,” explained quarterback Darren Studstill, today the dean at Olympic Heights High in Boca Raton, Fla.
And right in the middle of it (or on the bottom of it) was Collins.
“There were four guys stomping on me and another guy trying to pull my helmet off so they could kick me in the head. About that time, miraculously, a couple of guys from our bench came over and jumped on me right as they were about to pull my helmet off,” Collins remembered.
If not for the players coming to his rescue, Collins’ teammates believe he could have been seriously injured.
“It was very close … someone could have gotten really hurt in that game,” said running back Adrian Murrell. “There was one guy for Syracuse and he was swinging his helmet like it was a weapon. He wasn’t showing any remorse – he was really going after it.”
To be fair, West Virginia’s players were going at it pretty hard, too. There were plenty of punches thrown on both sides and when the fighting ended – roughly 30 seconds after it started – the Big East officiating crew led by John Soffey had to sort things out, without the benefit of instant replay, by the way.
What that officiating crew came up with after the fight still baffles West Virginia players to this day. They determined that an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was necessary for Graves throwing the football at Orr and that two offsetting personal foul penalties should be assessed on both teams for fighting.
Then they delivered the bombshell: three West Virginia defensive players, Collins, Briggs and Leroy Axem, and one Syracuse player, reserve offensive guard Ken Warren, were out of the game.
“Who the hell was he?” laughed Collins. “Obviously, he was one of their better players.”
When it became clear that West Virginia got the short end of the stick with the ejections, several reporters up in the press box converged on longtime Syracuse sports information director Larry Kimball to find out who Warren was because he wasn’t even listed on the flip card issued to media members to help them cover the game.
Kimball had been in this situation once before in Morgantown, in 1970, when he witnessed another bench-clearing brawl during a basketball game against the Mountaineers that was triggered by a Syracuse player taking a swing at a referee. Kimball, in his press box seat, shooed the reporters away like flies. “I don’t know who he is, leave me alone!” he barked.
“I’m pretty sure that guy is not on any hall of fame walls up there – it was pretty amazing,” laughed Briggs, today working for FedEx and living near Syracuse. “Given the magnitude of the fight on the field, obviously we were all wrong for taking it to that level, but to have players ejected and it be so one-sided was kind of a frustrating thing.”
Despite the ejections, West Virginia was still in great position to win the game. Fans at the stadium were willing to give the officials the benefit of the doubt until three plays later when it looked like the Mountaineers had Syracuse stopped on a fourth-and-nine play at the 26 yard line.
A Graves pass over the middle sailed high and wide of tight end Chris Gedney and West Virginia’s offensive players were about to go back out to run out the clock when everyone noticed a late flag laying on the ground across the field near the Syracuse bench. West Virginia linebacker Matt Taffoni was called for pass interference to give the Orange a fresh set of downs at the 31 yard line.
“Their kid throws the ball about five yards overtop the kid’s head and they called pass interference on Matt Taffoni,” Coach Don Nehlen recalled. “That gave them a first down on a fourth-down play. We had already won the game and then we had to win it again. It was crazy.”
“That’s about the latest flag I’ve ever seen,” said Briggs. “We’re going off the field, it’s fourth down, and that flag seemed awfully late, but it was a whole series of calls that were questionable at best.”
After that penalty, the mood in the stadium turned dark. Many harbored conspiratorial thoughts: one of the Big East blue bloods was getting the benefit of the doubt with the officials. At the time Syracuse was one of the league’s founding schools and West Virginia was just a provisional member in the Big East Football Conference. It wasn’t until three years later that the Mountaineers became full-fledged members of the conference.
Of course, there were no conspiracies that afternoon. Most of the officials on that crew had impeccable credentials and went on to have exceptional careers, Soffey later becoming the Big East’s supervisor of officials, Carl Crawley and Gary Dancewicz working numerous bowl games, and Nick Trainer serving as the lead replay official for the 2010 national championship game between Alabama and Texas. It was just a series of unfortunate calls that went against West Virginia at a key moment in the game. West Virginia offensive lineman Lorenzo Styles, today an assistant principal at Booker T. Washington High in Miami, says he frequently uses that game as a lesson to all of his students.
“We have to play above the referees, we have to play above the other team and that’s all on us,” he said. “How we respond and how we react will dictate the outcome and we didn’t (make the plays) so we have to put that on our shoulders.”
Two plays after the pass interference penalty, Graves hit Gedney for a 38-yard pass to the West Virginia 17, and then one play after that, Graves hooked up with Gedney for the game-winning touchdown pass with just 51 seconds left.
Making it even tougher to take was the fact that Collins’ replacement, John Harper, was covering Gedney on the play, and Briggs’ replacement, Joe Pabian, was clearly held by Syracuse offensive tackle Chuck Bull as Graves was flushed from the pocket to buy more time to make the winning throw.
“I was on the sidelines watching that last drive and it was probably one of the most helpless feelings I’ve had in my life,” said Briggs. “I was playing pretty well at that point in the game and I felt like I had a pretty good matchup against the offensive tackle that I was playing against and just to have to stand on the sidelines and watch all of that happen … helpless and frustrating were the best words to describe it.”
“I don’t want to sit here and blame them (officials), but for them to take the position to throw them out and not to reciprocate that on the Syracuse side, it was a jagged pill to swallow,” Murrell said.
The loss was one of three in a row West Virginia suffered during a difficult stretch of the season that saw the Mountaineers also drop tough games to 14th-ranked Penn State and to top-ranked Miami. West Virginia finished with a 5-4-2 record and failed to make a bowl game that year.
Syracuse, meanwhile, caught fire to win four of its five remaining regular season games before knocking off 10th-ranked Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl to finish the year with a 10-2 record.
The next season West Virginia was able to get its revenge in the Carrier Dome, defeating Syracuse 43-0 in a game that was much more lopsided than the final score indicated. Nehlen had a chance to tack on a late touchdown that would have given the Mountaineers a 50-point victory, but he ordered quarterback Darren Studstill to take a knee and run out the clock instead of trying to score more points. It was a lesson in mercy that some Mountaineer players failed to grasp after the way they believed the ’92 game was stolen from them like a Russian election.
“Help me with the lesson again,” asked Studstill some 20 years after the fact. “All I know is we wanted to put 50 on them that day.”
“At the end of the game I remember thinking to myself, ‘Why doesn’t he have the starters in? Why is he taking a knee? Let’s embarrass these dudes!” said Collins.
“Nehlen and (former Syracuse coach) Dick MacPherson were pretty tight, so yeah, that doesn’t surprise me, but looking back on it he did the right thing,” said quarterback Jake Kelchner. “It was such a blowout that it wasn’t even funny, and it could have been a lot worse.”
“Nehlen wasn’t quite that kind of guy,” added offensive tackle Rich Braham, a 13-year NFL veteran with the Cardinals and Bengals. “Everybody wanted revenge from the prior year, though.”
“My kids wanted to get into the 50s but those Syracuse guys are all really good friends of mine,” Nehlen explained. “Dick MacPherson and I coached together for a long time and Paul Pasqualoni was always one of my best friends. Once we got into the 40s I wasn’t much interested (in scoring more). I wanted to play my players, but there is no question they kept looking over to the bench (wanting to score that final touchdown).”
Styles, by then already graduated, said he wasn’t surprised at all by the score while watching the game on ESPN.
“There is one thing I know about West Virginia, if you embarrass us or you wrong us, the next year you are in trouble,” he said. “That is one thing I know.”
West Virginia went 11-0 that season and faced Florida in the Sugar Bowl with a team many players of that era believe was less talented than the one in 1992 that lost to Syracuse in Morgantown. That ’92 squad featured several long-time NFL players in Murrell, Beasley, Braham, James Jett, Mike Compton, Todd Sauerbrun and Mike Vanderjagt.
“We had more talent my junior year by far than we did my senior year, and my senior year we should have been playing for the national title and my junior year we didn’t even make a bowl,” said Kelchner. “It’s mind boggling.”
Collins is not sure West Virginia would have defeated Florida in the ’94 Sugar Bowl (a 41-7 Gator rout), but he does believe losing to Syracuse in ’92 and not going to a bowl game that season had an effect on the team’s performance down in New Orleans the following year.
“(The 1992 Syracuse game) changed the whole outlook of the season and if we win that game we would have gone to a bowl,” said Collins. “When you think about the ’93 season, looking back on it now, one of the biggest things that hurt us in the bowl game against Florida was the fact that none of us had actually ever played in a bowl game and we never had the bowl experience. We are 19 to 22-year-old kids and we get to go down to New Orleans for a week and hang out …”
“There is always something you can take away from having the experience of preparing for bowl games,” added Kelchner. “I went to the Orange Bowl (when he played at Notre Dame) and then to the Sugar Bowl, you’ve got to know when to scale it back. From Tuesday and Wednesday on you’ve got to be completely focused and channeled on the game, and especially the younger guys need to understand that.”
Today, the two schools have kind of gone their separate ways, West Virginia to the Big 12 Conference and Syracuse soon leaving for the ACC. There may not be quite the same passion and animosity there once was between the two but ask anyone who was involved in that ’92 Syracuse game in Morgantown and they will likely give you a different opinion of the Orange.
“After that (’92 game), every time we played Syracuse we were on a mission,” said Beasley, a nine-year NFL cornerback with the Jaguars, Jets and Falcons. “It was always a big rivalry, but that game just upped the ante right there. It was always a personal game for me after that. Even when I was in the NFL I carried that with me whenever I went up against anybody from Syracuse.”
“We were pissed,” said Studstill. “We felt like we were disrespected and it wasn’t like a disappointment that we lost, it was more like, ‘I want to fight these guys.’ We wished we could have met those guys up on (Law School Hill) with nobody else around but us.”
Collins is the player most easily remembered from that game, him slamming his helmet to the turf in disgust when he found out that he was thrown out of the game and then kicking his helmet into the air toward the sideline when he was told to get off the field.
Collins said he had a chance to pay back Graves the following year in the Carrier Dome, but he came to his senses when he realized what was at stake for the team the second time around when the Mountaineers were playing for an undefeated season.
“I remember he rolled out and I took off after him and tackled him for a loss,” said Collins. “I had him by the ankles and I wanted so bad to throw his legs down on the ground but I didn’t.
“I begrudgingly stuck my hand out to help him off the ground and I remember just thinking to myself, ‘I just want to punch the (expletive) out of him.’ And he gave me a look like he was expecting it, to be quite honest,” Collins laughed.
As for Nehlen, retired since 2000, he has forgotten many of the victories as the years pass by but like most old coaches, he has never quite let go of the losses, especially the one his team endured against Syracuse in 1992.
“I can never remember my record exactly,” said Nehlen, “but whatever it is, I always say ‘and plus one.’”Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.