The Play That Wasn't
John Antonik
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Posted by John Antonik on Friday, May 1, 2009
(4:34 pm)
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If only Major Harris could have a quarter for every time someone came up to him and asked him to describe ‘The Play.’

 
  A scrambling Major Harris gets ready to throw the football to fullback Craig Taylor wide open down the field.
Mountaineer Sports Network

Of course every died-in-the-wool Mountaineer fan remembers ‘The Play’ – the one against Penn State in 1988 when Harris forgot the play in the huddle and the entire West Virginia team went to the left and Major went to the right, faking out the Nittany Lion defense for a 26-yard touchdown.

“The most gorgeous run I had ever seen,” said Harris’ coach Don Nehlen.

Twenty years worth of questions gradually led Harris to come up with an unexpected response. Now when he is asked about 'The Play' Harris chooses to describe another play he made against Penn State. This one came in 1987 up at State College when he was a freshman. And it didn’t even count.

"To be honest, I was more impressed with that one," Harris said.

Here were the circumstances.

After trailing 10-7 at halftime, West Virginia finally took its first lead of the game midway through the third quarter when Harris flipped a short pass to tight end Keith Winn for a touchdown. The Mountaineers extended their lead to 21-10 early in the fourth quarter when Harris hooked up with split end John Talley for a 30-yard score.

West Virginia was trekking in unfamiliar territory - at least for those born after 1954 when the Mountaineers last won at State College.

Was this finally going to be the year?

Penn State dumped cold water on those thoughts on its next possession when the Lions marched 58 yards in six plays for a touchdown, and then added the two-point conversion to make it 21-18 with 7:54 remaining in the game.

What West Virginia needed was a sustained drive to eat some clock and put pressure on Penn State’s defense. A touchdown and an extra point would have given the Mountaineers a 10-point lead with less than seven minutes to go.

After Talley returned the kickoff to the West Virginia 34 and a short A.B. Brown run got the ball to the 36, Harris made what appeared to be the play of the game.

He rolled out to his left to try a pass to wide receiver Calvin Phillips along the sideline. Penn State (as it usually did against West Virginia) had the play perfectly diagnosed - almost as if the Lions knew it before West Virginia even called it.

The linebackers fanned out into the flat as they were supposed to, the corner was up tight on Phillips and the defensive line had Harris running vertically toward the sideline.

Sensing this wasn’t going to work, Major faked like he was going to make the throw, and then he spun around and took off running toward the far side of the field. Now, all those cagey Penn State defenders that had things under control weren’t so sure what to do.

Harris turned on the gas and bodies were flying everywhere as he navigated around the cut blocks and the mass of humanity lying on the ground before him.

He reached the point just past the near hash when he saw two burly Penn State players ready to unload on him. Instinctively, he changed direction and headed back to the other side of the field, dodging two more would-be tacklers where a path had been cleared by the West Virginia linemen still left on their feet.

Standing 25 yards down the field beyond Harris was fullback Craig Taylor, covered before, but now completely wide open. Harris wound up and threw a pass across his body to a surprised Taylor, who juggled the ball momentarily before hauling in.

Once he collected himself, Taylor ran down to the Penn State 25 where he pirouetted around a defender and carried the football all the way to the 6 yard line.

The dagger was stuck in the heart of Penn State. The Lions were finally on the grill ready to be cooked.

Or were they?

Back at the 40, one of those yellow flags that always seem to come out at the right time for Penn State was again lying on the field.

West Virginia fans, remembering the hosing the Mountaineers took in Morgantown in 1972 when Penn State was incorrectly awarded a touchdown when Bob Nagle clearly fumbled before the goal line and West Virginia’s Billy Joe Mantooth and Dennis Harris pounced on the ball at the three, could see the spigot being turned on them once again.

Penn State coach Joe Paterno has been known to get his way on the football field. In fact, there are some Pitt players who used to swear that the sidelines at State College were crooked.

This time, however, the call was right.

“I was nabbed,” said West Virginia guard John Stroia. “Instead of turning around and running back toward the line of scrimmage, what I should have done was fallen down right where I was. That way I wouldn’t have drawn attention to myself.”

The football was marched back to the 31. A reverse to Talley was thrown for a one yard loss and Harris lost five more yards trying to scramble for another big play. Penn State wound up getting the football back and scored the winning touchdown.

“We would have probably beat Penn State if that play would have held up,” Harris said.

It was the greatest play that wasn’t.

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John Antonik is responsible for coordinating the official athletic web site WVUsports.com, as well web sites Mountaineer Athletic Club.com, WVU Game.com, WVU Varsity Club.com and Shop WVU.com for the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Antonik first began working for the athletic department during the 1988 season as a student assistant. Antonik is the author of West Virginia University Football Vault: The History of the Mountaineers and he has a new book coming out this fall: Roll Out the Carpet: 101 Seasons of West Virginia University Basketball published by WVU Press.


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