McKenzie's Kick is Good!
This year is the 35th anniversary of West Virginia’s 17-14 upset victory over Pitt at old Mountaineer Field on Nov. 8, 1975. The Mountaineers were two-touchdown underdogs against the nationally ranked Panthers, and they won on the final play of the game when walk-on kicker Bill McKenzie booted a 38-yard field goal. It remains one of the most unforgettable wins in school history.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - The one lasting memory Frank Cignetti has of West Virginia’s 17-14 victory over Pitt in 1975 wasn’t Bill McKenzie’s kick that beat the Panthers on the final play of the game, or the ensuing student celebration that left people shocked and awed years before anyone had ever even heard of the phrase Shock and Awe.
No, the thing Cignetti remembers most about that unforgettable game was West Virginia’s refusal to quit when it had every reason to. It was a lesson Cignetti didn’t forget a few years later when he beat cancer back when almost nobody was beating cancer, particularly the form of the disease he had that was so rare it took doctors months to diagnose. Cignetti, now retired and living in Indiana, Pa., remembers clearly the circumstances that led to McKenzie’s unforgettable game-winning field goal.
“We were on a drive with two or three minutes left on the clock,” recalled Cignetti, then the team’s offensive coordinator. “We were going to run out the clock and set up a field goal that would have won the game. But Ron Lee fumbled the football. It would have been easy for that defense to start complaining about Ron Lee fumbling the football but, no, they went in there and did their job and stuffed Pitt on three downs and forced a punt. Then, the offensive team went out there and did what it had to do to win the game.”
It was a victory no one in West Virginia at the time really expected (for those of you too young to remember the ’75 Pitt game think of West Virginia’s stunning 13-9 loss to Pitt in 2007 for something comparable).
Running back Artie Owens, whose four years in Morgantown were spent playing in the shadow of Pitt All-American Tony Dorsett, remembered a supremely confident Panther team that strolled into West Virginia’s ancient stadium that overcast Saturday afternoon in early November.
“They had so much confidence that they would come in here and take over in our own backyard in our little stadium,” Owens recalled. Growing up in eastern Pennsylvania, Owens knew next to nothing about the WVU-Pitt game before he came to Morgantown in 1972.
“I only experienced during the years that I was there how intense and how much this game means in the different neighborhoods and things like that,” he said. “It reminded me of when I was in high school. It had the same type of atmosphere and hype.”
In 1973, Johnny Majors pulled the Pitt football program out of the dumpster after years of neglect.
“They were terrible in the late sixties and early seventies,” recalled West Virginia defensive end Gary Lombard, a native of Perryopolis, Pa. Lombard remembered the air being sucked out of his living room when Pitt recruiter Bimbo Cecconi showed up at his house to talk about the Panther program.
“He basically just spoke with me and he said, ‘Oh by the way, here’s an application. Please fill this out and we’ll see if you can get accepted into Pitt.’ I can’t say I actually ever had another coach say that,” Lombard said. “I had a pretty good grade point average, but they approached things a little bit differently at Pitt in the early seventies.”
Fox Chappel’s Andy Peters also got an inside peak at what was going on in the Pitt program in the late sixties and early seventies.
“I moved to Pittsburgh in 1964 and (Pitt star player) Paul Martha married my cousin,” Peters said. “When he found out I was getting recruited and he was still playing for the Steelers he said, ‘Andy, Carl DePasqua does not have a good program and I cannot tell you in good conscious that you should go to Pitt.’ So when coach Bowden came and sat in my living room and sold my parents and me (West Virginia) was the logical choice.”
When Pitt fired DePasqua after a 1-10 season in 1972, the Panthers - specifically the Golden Panthers - opened up their wallets and hired Iowa State’s Johnny Majors. Everything Majors asked for he got. When he wanted Pitt to pull out of the “Big Four” - a loosely arranged association consisting of Penn State, Syracuse, Pitt and West Virginia that regulated such things as scheduling, officiating, redshirting and scholarship limitations - Pitt let him. Majors wanted to redshirt players and sign those humongous recruiting classes the renegade programs in the south and southwest were bringing in – the exact thing coach Jim Carlen wanted to do at West Virginia before he departed for Texas Tech after the 1969 Peach Bowl (the WVU athletic council refused Carlen’s demands out of fear of jeopardizing longstanding relationships with Pitt, Syracuse and Penn State). Once again, Pitt acquiesced, letting Majors sign away.
Majors wound up signing more than 75 players in his first recruiting class in 1972, among them Tony Dorsett, Al Romano, JC Pelusi, Jim Corbett, Joe Stone, Arnie Weatherington and kicker Carson Long – all members of the ’76 national championship team. The funding for all of those scholarships came from an educational trust established for Pitt football players to use to continue their post-graduate education.
“The big thing that helped them when coach Majors came in there was he was able to beat the new legislation on numbers,” said Cignetti. “His first year, there are all kind of stories on the number of players he brought in and I can’t say exactly how many. That gave them a leg up right there and one of them was Tony Dorsett.”
West Virginia’s Gary Lombard missed Majors by one year or he likely would have been Panther recruit No. 77, 78, 79 or whatever the final number turned out to be that year.
“There were guys that I played against in high school that I was kind of friends with who were at Pitt at the time and it was a big transition,” Lombard remembered. “A lot of people got run off and a lot of new faces came in. If Majors brought you in you were going to stay there, but if you were there before, he axed a lot of those guys.”
“They were recruiting me and I remember talking to people there and they said they had signed between 80 and a 100 players (in 1972) because there were no rules regulating that stuff back then,” remembered quarterback Dan Kendra. “I played in the Big 33 game with Randy Holloway and a couple of other guys and I’d say to them, ‘My god, are you guys going to school or working up there?’”
“With that many players coming in, you’ve only got to hit on 30 percent of them,” explained former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, who played wide receiver for his father at WVU in the mid-1970s. “The guys that were left were really, really good players. You could go up there and hit and scrimmage and get ‘em hurt and run ‘em off and weed it down to the good ones, and that’s surely what they did. It was a heck of a plan by Coach Majors.”
Majors stopped Pitt’s 10-year losing streak in its tracks in 1973 with a 6-5-1 record that included the school’s first bowl trip in 16 years. In 1974, Majors led the Panthers to a 7-4 record that featured wins over Georgia Tech, Syracuse and Temple, as well as competitive losses to USC and Notre Dame.
Pitt’s two victories over West Virginia in ’73 and ’74 were blowouts: 35-7 in Morgantown in ’73 and 31-14 in Pittsburgh in ’74. Dorsett played a big role in both games, running for 150 yards and three touchdowns (all three scores coming in the second half) in the ’73 game and producing 145 yards and a TD in the ’74 Pitt win. What irked the West Virginia players more than Dorsett’s showboating and constant jawing were the three cheap scores the Panthers got in the fourth quarter that turned a tight game into another blowout loss for WVU.
And the defeats were beginning to pile up for the Mountaineers in ‘74 – seven in all during a season that almost completely turned the West Virginia fan base against their football coach. The discontent actually began during Bowden’s first year in 1970 when he inherited a strong team from Carlen that featured Jim Braxton, Bob Gresham, Eddie Williams and Mike Sherwood – all offensive stars on the ’69 Peach Bowl team. West Virginia started that season in Sports Illustrated’s Top 20 for the first time in school history.
“The ’70 team had a lot of talent there,” Cignetti recalled. “It was sort of a carry over and the expectations were very high.”
Bowden had two crucial missteps in consecutive weeks that hardened the opinions of his critics: he chose to punt deep in Duke territory during a tight game his team lost (the backup punter sailed the ball well into the end zone instead of kicking it out of bounds) and he went conservative after leading Pitt 35-8 at halftime in a game the Panthers wound up winning 36-35. Many fans never forgave Bowden for those two blunders.
“We had those two bad situations,” Cignetti said. “We were down inside the Duke 20 I don’t know how many times and we didn’t get any points. The great lesson to me was, hey, when you’re down there get those field goals because we ended up losing a close game.”
After the ’70 Pitt loss, Tommy Bowden learned quickly just how important beating the Panthers was to the people of West Virginia - and to the continued sanity of his family.
“At that particular stage of my father’s coaching career – and us as children being considerably younger – the death threats and things of that nature brought it down to a little more personal level, and you kind of understood the intensity of the rivalry much better,” Tommy recalled.
Unfortunately, the difficulties continued for the Bowdens. A strong start to the ’71 season was eventually derailed by injuries and a lack of depth, the team’s 6-1 record to begin the year ending at 7-4. In 1972, Bowden took the Mountaineers to the Peach Bowl in Atlanta but they were embarrassed by NC State 49-13. Player misbehavior down in Atlanta was blamed for the loss and many Mountaineer fans drove back from the game with “Fire Bowden” signs in the back windows of their cars.
Bowden, a devout Christian, was stung by the perception that he was running a loose ship and he immediately instituted more stringent rules for his team to adhere to after that loss. The camouflaged clothes, the long hair and mustaches that were popular in the seventies were no longer allowed. Bowden also began secluding his football team before home games.
“The next two years we took Bluebird busses to Kingwood and stayed the night there before home games at a place called Mamie’s Hotel,” said Lombard. “Now let me tell you, whenever you came back the next morning on a Bluebird bus on those roads you weren’t feeling too good by the time you got to the stadium.”
The players weren’t the only ones suffering from motion sickness. The fans were also getting sick of the rollercoaster ride their football team was on. After winning its first three games of the ’73 season against Maryland, Virginia Tech and Illinois to get back into the rankings, West Virginia promptly dropped four in a row, including losses to Indiana and Richmond that began to turn the heat up on Bowden. Back-to-back season-ending wins over Virginia and Syracuse only delayed the criticism that carried over to 1974, the vitriol growing so intense that Bowden thought he might get the boot after the Virginia Tech game to end of the season.
But true freshman quarterback Dan Kendra led the Mountaineers to a late score and Hokie kicker Wayne Latimer missed two game-winning field goal tries that wound up preserving Bowden’s job.
“I got on the bus after the game and (Bowden) grabbed me by the arm as I was going to my seat and he said, ‘Boy, you might have saved me!’ I was a freshman and I had no idea what he was talking about,” Kendra said. “Now, years later when you think back on it, he felt if he would have lost that game he was going to get fired.”
The pressure that season eventually got Bowden, who in a rare moment of frustration was seen waving letters of support written by WVU President James Harlow and Athletic Director of Athletics Leland Byrd to some of his critics after one disappointing home loss.
“The great thing about West Virginia University was the president, the athletic director and the athletic council all came to me and said, ‘Bobby, don’t pay any attention to them (his critics). You are our coach and we are staying with you,’” Bowden said before Florida State’s 2010 Gator Bowl appearance against his former team.
“That year was so bad because the coaches made our offense geared around Danny Buggs and he got hurt,” added tight end Randy Swinson. “In ’74 the mindset was ‘this is Danny Buggs’ team.’ That didn’t feel good at all. You’re like ‘coach I can do this’ but that was Danny Buggs’ team and it showed when he got hurt and he missed four or five games. We were crushed.”
Defensive end Andy Peters thought Buggs’ injury was only part of the problem.
“We had more talent in ’73 and ’74 than we did in ’75 but we just didn’t have a Danny Kendra and it was a shame because with Buggs, Marshall Mills and some of the great receivers we had – and the running backs – if we would have had a quarterback we would have been really dangerous,” Peters said.
In Cignetti’s opinion, the program’s most pressing problem was a lack of depth on the offensive and defensive lines.
“I think the biggest difference we probably faced at West Virginia was what you had after your best 22 players on the field,” Cignetti said. “We had depth at certain positions. We had depth at running back. Where we were thin when I was there was the offensive and defensive lines. We didn’t have the numbers there. It wasn’t the first 22 players that we put on the field - it was what we had on the field after the injuries where we ran into problems.”
Because it was next to impossible for West Virginia to out-recruit Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan for top linemen in those days (those difficulties still continue to this day), the decision was made to keep running the veer offense first introduced by Carlen in 1969.
“It was an offense that you didn’t have to have the greatest offensive line in the world to run because you blocked low and you blocked at people’s feet,” Bowden once explained. “When you start blocking high you’ve got to be strong to knock them out of the way.”
Cignetti, Bowden’s offensive coordinator, quickly became an expert in the veer, using it later when he was West Virginia’s head coach.
“The veer is basically inside-outside so the blocking schemes are really predicated on the (defensive) linemen,” Cignetti explained. “You had about four basic plays, so in terms of a game plan what you’re going to do really depended upon the alignment of the defense. It’s not a strategy you would use today in attacking defenses.”
Defensive coordinator Chuck Klausing was having his own problems, particularly against the pass. Like many other schools, West Virginia was running the 50 defense that was popular in the mid-1970s, utilizing a middle guard flanked by a pair of defensive tackles with two defensive ends on the outside. Behind them were two middle linebackers and a secondary that traditionally played three-deep coverage with a free safety in the middle of the field and a strong safety near the line of scrimmage. But in ’74, Klausing decided to play a new cover-two configuration in the secondary which moved the two corners up to the line of scrimmage and placed the safeties behind them, splitting the field in half.
“We were probably more innovative for that time period,” admitted linebackers coach Donnie Young.
In retrospect, what West Virginia was doing defensively in 1974 was probably a little too cutting edge for the players to handle. The secondary that year allowed opposing QBs to complete 59.4 percent of their pass attempts, an extraordinarily high percentage for that time.
So to fix that in ’75 two things happened. One, during the off-season the defensive coaches visited Klausing’s old buddy Larry Jones down at Tennessee where Jones had the nation’s No. 1 ranked pass defense in 1974. Out of those meetings came the decision to have West Virginia’s defensive tackles do more angling and shading to make it more difficult for offenses to block them. The second thing that happened was Greg Williams was hired to coach the defensive backs. Williams earned the immediate respect of the players and brought toughness to the defense that it was lacking in ‘74.
“(Williams) could really get those kids to play,” recalled Young.
While Williams injected youth and enthusiasm into the defense, it was Klausing’s steady hand and experience that molded it all together. Klausing was an outstanding tactician who has since written several books on football strategy and was conducting yearly football clinics well into his 80s. At West Virginia, Klausing coached the defensive ends and he would frequently have them off to the side of the field where he meticulously walked them through all of the things that they would encounter on Saturdays.
“Coach Klausing was so good at getting defenses prepared,” said Peters. “When the tight end would take his helmet and block down, I knew the top three plays that were coming at me. If he looped around to the outside same thing. If he came straight at me, boom, boom, boom … and that stuff always played true.”
Klausing was also a very clever coach – some would even say devious, in the best sense of the word, of course, using whatever information he could get his hands on to get an advantage. And Klausing got information on just about everything. Somehow, he found out that Gary Lombard was working at a downtown bar to make a few extra bucks, so he called his defensive end into his office one morning to find out what was going on. Lombard explained that he needed the additional dough to help make ends meet during the off-season. Klausing listened to Lombard’s story and then told one of his own.
“You know, Gary, there are NCAA rules that say you can’t have a job while you are on scholarship,” Klausing said. Then the coach proceeded to tell Lombard about his days as a college student going over to Canton, Ohio, on Sundays to play football for the professional Canton Bulldogs under an assumed name. When Klausing finished his story and their meeting was over, Lombard wasn’t sure whether or not he was supposed to quit his bouncing job.
Tony Dorsett reached 1,000 yards during Pitt’s eighth game of the ’75 season – a 38-0 whitewash of Syracuse. It was the third of four consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns for the 1976 Heisman Trophy winner. The 20th-ranked Panthers played the Syracuse game without their starting quarterback, Robert Haygood, who suffered a badly bruised hip in Pitt’s 17-0 loss to Navy. Taking Haygood’s place against the Orange was sophomore Matt Cavanaugh, who completed 6 of 9 passes for 167 yards and three touchdowns. He was going to make his second career start against West Virginia in Morgantown.
The Mountaineers started off the ’75 campaign impressively with road victories at Cal and SMU, reaching the Top 10 for the first time in more than two decades before suffering a deflating 39-0 loss at Penn State. Artie Owens hurt his shoulder against the Nittany Lions and was not available for the following week’s game against Tulane, which turned out to be a 16-14 defeat. The Mountaineers recovered with back-to-back wins over Virginia Tech and Kent State to boost their record to 6-2 heading into the Pitt game. Still, no one thought West Virginia had much of a chance against the Panthers. In fact, all but one of the Charleston Gazette’s Fearless Forecasters had predicted a Pitt victory. Bob Fretwell, Bob Baker, Skip Johnson, S.J. Easterling, Danny Wells, Paul Wallace, Terry Marchal, and the Associated Press’s “Piggy” (which was actually Sistersville native Alan Robinson), liked the 12-point spread the Panthers were giving.
Wells and Wallace thought so little of West Virginia’s chances that they had Pittsburgh winning the game by two touchdowns. The only Gazette writer to side with the Mountaineers was Mike Whiteford, who predicted a 24-17 upset.
Gazette sports editor Shorty Hardman didn’t make a prediction, but he also didn’t give Gold and Blue rooters much hope with his pregame assessment, “According to the experts, there is no way West Virginia’s Mountaineers can beat Pitt Saturday when these two old rivals come together in Morgantown,” he wrote. “We’re not experts by any stretch of the imagination, but we wouldn’t argue that this appraisal of the game is just about correct.”
The West Virginia players were arguing – not about the lack of faith being shown in the local press – but instead about who was going to be introduced on television before the game. ABC was airing the contest to a regional audience; it was the Mountaineers’ first regular season TV game since losing 28-19 to 11th-ranked Penn State in Morgantown in 1972.
Many of the defensive players took a conspiratorial view, believing that Bowden had secretly lobbied to get the offensive players introduced before the game because he was known as an innovative offensive coach and the offensive side of the field is where he spent most of his time during practice. Of course, it quickly became clear to everyone that ABC was going to introduce the WVU defense because the star of the game was Pitt’s Dorsett. So during pre-game warm-ups the 11 West Virginia defensive starters walked over to the press box side of the field and stood in a straight line next to the Pitt offense while ABC announcer Bill Fleming introduced all 22 starters from both teams.
“I can remember coach Bowden made a rule that no one was going to play if their hair was sticking out of their helmets,” said Lombard. “A bunch of us got our hair cut. I remember Artie Owens gave me my haircut.”
“They lined you up 11 across and I was the first one,” added Peters. “You didn’t say anything. They just showed your picture and said who you were.”
Dan Kendra doesn’t recall the pregame introductions, but he does remember those ridiculous yellow blazers the ABC announcers were required to wear. Kendra remembers making a comment about those awful jackets to Bill Fleming, who was down on the field during pregame warm-ups.
“I remember running by him and saying to him, ‘Man, those are some ugly sport coats.’ He just turned around and started laughing,” said Kendra. “I bet he heard that a thousand times.”
The pre-game festivities proved to be the most exciting aspect of the first half, which immediately developed into a siege as both teams dug in near midfield. Almost the entire first half was played in the middle of the field with Pitt’s deepest penetration reaching the Mountaineer 35, and West Virginia’s longest drive ending at the Pitt 39.
A pair of losses and an illegal procedure penalty ruined Pitt’s best drive, while some scattershot passing by Kendra and Danny Williams forced West Virginia to punt to end its best first half drive.
Twice Bowden tried fake punts and both were almost comical in their failures. At the WVU 46 punter Jeff Fette took off running and got all of seven yards before being dragged down by Pitt’s Dennis Moorhead - a mere 15 yards short of the first down marker.
Then late in the first half, Bowden called a “Bowdenrooski” on his own 40 with 32 seconds remaining on the clock (it was the same play he famously ran 13 years later in a big Florida State come-from-behind win at Clemson). The fake called for the football to be snapped to the up-back, who hides the ball between his legs while a teammate takes it out and runs with it. Paul Jordan was the ball carrier for this fake punt - not Leroy Butler who pulled off the memorable fake for the Seminoles many years later against the Tigers.
The fake Bowden tried against Pitt didn’t quite work out as well.
Perhaps the most exciting play of the first half came early in the second quarter when Pitt’s Gordon Jones fielded a punt at his own five, gave ground into his own end zone where West Virginia’s Ken Braswell, Dave Riley and Jordan all had clear shots to tackle him for a safety, but Jones somehow pirouetted his way out of danger before being dragged down at the seven. The tattered game film clearly shows Pitt’s “Kamikaze Kid” Chuck Bonasorte putting a punctuation mark on the play with an after-the-whistle forearm to the throat of West Virginia’s Greg Dorn, who Bowden mistakenly called “Phil” for most his career (Bowden was notoriously bad with names, later rectifying that at Florida State by choosing to call everyone he didn't know Buddy).
At halftime, West Virginia had a 138-114 advantage in yardage and a 6-3 edge in first downs, but neither team could put a dent in the scoreboard. Still, Swinson remembers a calm WVU locker room at intermission.
“All I remember is coach Bowden saying ‘we’re going to do this’ and ‘guys this is what y’all have got to do.’ We came out of the locker room slapping each other upside the helmet saying, ‘Come on, this is what we’ve got to do,’” he said.
Cignetti also decided to keep his play calling conservative because West Virginia’s defense was performing so well.
“Our defense played great that day,” Cignetti said. “You talk about shutting down a high-powered offense … and maybe as great a running back as there has ever been in college football.”
Klausing did some tinkering with his defense to slow down Dorsett. Instead of playing a 5-2-4, he had his guys in a 5-3-2-1 configuration that afternoon with the nose guard (Ken Culbertson), the two tackles (Rich Lukowski and Chuck Smith) and one linebacker (Steve Dunlap) handling the dive while the safeties Tommy Pridemore and Mark Burke were responsible for Cavanaugh on the option. That left Lombard, Peters and the remaining linebacker Ray Marshall on an island to try and contain Dorsett on the pitch.
“I asked our ends, ‘Can you run four yards as fast as Tony Dorsett can run eight yards?’” Klausing recalled in 2005. “I wanted them to go straight up field when they pitched the ball to Dorsett so they would be waiting on him.”
The tackles also helped the ends by angling, slanting and extending their gaps toward the sidelines to their advantage. “The philosophy always was one player covers one hole and you would stretch your hole out as far as you could to the sidelines to try and keep their speedsters from getting to the corner,” explained Chuck Smith. “It worked for us.”
As well as the defense played, there were still mistakes made that Pitt took advantage of. One came late in the third quarter when Dunlap lost track of Dorsett on a swing pass out in the flat that resulted in Pitt’s second touchdown of the game to tie the score at 14.
“In that defense I played in the middle over the center,” said Dunlap. “We got down to the goal line and we were playing man to man and they came out in a split backfield and Tony lined up behind the offensive tackle.”
Dunlap thought about cheating a couple steps to his right in case Pitt tried to throw the ball out in the flat to Dorsett, but he was afraid to do it because linebackers coach Donnie Young was against his players doing any freelancing. So Dunlap remained where he was, Cavanaugh threw the ball to Dorsett exactly as Dunlap thought they might and he got to chase the Pitt running back into the end zone.
“I come off to the sidelines and I say, ‘Coach I couldn’t get to him. He lined up behind the tackle,’” Dunlap laughed. “Donnie said, ‘Why didn’t you move out there?’ I’m thinking to myself ‘what do you mean why didn’t I move out there? You would have killed me!’”
Pitt’s other score came as a result of a Gordon Jones 28-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter when he got behind Mark Burke and Johnny Schell to make a pretty over-the-shoulder grab before stepping out of the back of the end zone.
A good kickoff return by Dwayne Woods to the Mountaineer 33 gave West Virginia outstanding field position to begin the second half. Danny Williams was put in the game after the break to give the offense a boost, and he promptly led the team right down the field. A 25-yard pass to tight end Bubba Coker on third and eight got the ball to the Pitt 14.
“That was a dump to the tight end when you get them coming up and forcing the option,” explained Cignetti. “That was Danny Williams’ stuff right there.”
But three plays later, Panther defensive tackle Randy Holloway recovered Williams’ fumble at the five. West Virginia’s defense reciprocated two plays later when Dorsett was separated from the football at the 16 and Ray Marshall out-fought everyone for the ball at the bottom of the pile.
Kendra came back into the game and handed off eight straight times, the last one to Ron Lee on fourth and goal from the one where he carried Pitt linebacker Cecil Johnson into the end zone for the game’s first score.
West Virginia’s second touchdown came as a result of its best drive of the game, the Mountaineers consuming 73 yards on just six plays. After a short Lee run got the ball to the Pitt 31, Kendra loosened up the Panther defense with a 16 yard pass to Swinson to the WVU 47. Lee barreled for 12 more to the Pitt 41 and Owens tacked on 13 additional yards to the 28. A Lee smash to the Panther 23 set up Owens’ beautiful TD run on a counter dive play that was perfectly blocked by guards Bob Kaminiski and Steve Earley and center Al Gluchowski.
When Owens broke through the line of scrimmage, all that was standing in the way of him and the goal line was Pitt’s Tom Perko.
“It was like he was the only thing between me and the goal line, and I just made a move on him and all of the sudden he just disappeared,” recalled Owens.
That touchdown run sent a jolt of electricity through the stadium, its inhabitants for the first time really believing their team might just be able to pull off the upset. Even after Pitt tied the game with 7:55 to go and was later driving for the go-ahead score, the fans were still optimistic because the defense was playing so well.
Pitt appeared to be in business when Dorsett took a pitch from Cavanaugh and raced 22 yards to the West Virginia 28 where he was knocked into the WVU bench by Chuck Braswell. Team captain Dave Van Halanger remembers the Mountaineer players on the sidelines giving it to Dorsett and as he turned around to go back on to the field. Dorsett let his West Virginia hecklers know which team he thought was No. 1 that afternoon by putting both hands behind his back and using his two middle fingers, concealing them from the TV cameras.
“He was cocky,” said Van Halanger, “but what a great football player!”
Then Tommy Pridemore made a great play on Dorsett for a seven-yard loss; Pitt was flagged 15 yards for clipping on the play to push the ball back to the 49. Three plays after that, the defense came up with a huge turnover when a Cavanaugh pass toward the Pitt sideline ricocheted off of the back of Braswell’s shoulder pads right into the arms of Dunlap. When Dunlap got up to celebrate his momentum-changing interception at the West Virginia 35, Dorsett was right there to slap the football out of his hands.
“I don’t remember him doing that,” laughed Dunlap. “You’re talking about 35 years ago. Hell, I can’t remember what I did yesterday.”
Dunlap’s pick and two Kendra-to-Tommy Bowden pass plays totaling 39 yards moved the ball to the Pitt 30 (Those two Bowden catches would prove instrumental in setting up Randy Swinson’s reception down the far sideline to put McKenzie into position to kick the game-winning field goal).
“The basic thing was Randy would run a flat route to stretch the defender toward the sideline so Tommy could run the curl behind him,” explained Cignetti. “The curl is like a 15, 18-yard route and then he turns it in. Basically, the quarterback’s options were first to the curl and if it’s not there then he can hit the check-down over the ball, or, if he’s getting quick pressure he can unload it to Randy in the flat.”
Three plays after Bowden’s second grab got West Virginia into position for a McKenzie field goal try to put West Virginia back in the lead, disaster struck with 57 seconds left when Lee fumbled. Romano made a great play to strip the ball and Perko recovered it at the Panther 17.
Pitt could have run out the clock and left Morgantown with a tie, but Majors had a great kicker in Carson Long and he only needed about 45 yards to get into Long's range. But on first down WVU defensive tackle Rich Lukowski threw Dorsett for a one-yard loss, and then two more unsuccessful plays left Pitt with a fourth and two at the 25.
There was confusion on Pitt’s sideline, Cavanaugh believing it was still third down and was still on the field. Pitt offensive line coach Joe Avezzano frantically ran onto the field to get everyone straightened out and was flagged 15 yards for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, moving the ball back to the 10. That forced Pitt’s Larry Swider to punt from his end zone instead of the 13 yard line, and more importantly, it stopped the clock with 18 seconds remaining.
Swider’s punt was fielded by Burke, who bobbled the ball momentarily before being tackled at midfield with only 10 seconds remaining on the clock. West Virginia needed some sort of miracle to get the ball into a reasonable position for McKenzie to try a game-winning field goal.
Kendra knew they needed at least 25 yards to get into McKenzie's range so as the team broke the huddle, Kendra quickly grabbed Swinson by the arm and told him to turn his flat pattern into an out-and-up.
“I just remember the corner being on (Swinson’s) back the couple of times we ran that and I figured he would bite again,” explained Kendra. “So I just said in the huddle, ‘Let’s give it a shot, what the heck?’ With that amount of time it was sort of all or nothing because if we didn’t complete it we figured the next play was just going to be a grenade – just throw it up and hope for a prayer,” said Kendra.
“He wanted to give them something they hadn’t seen at all,” Swinson added. “They probably knew the formation with Tommy being the flanker, and when they saw our action that’s what they thought it was.”
The beauty of Kendra’s suggestion was that it didn’t affect any other player. The line still blocked the same way, Artie Owens still carried out his fake the same way, and Tommy Bowden still ran his route the same way. All that changed was Swinson running an out and then turning his pattern up the far sideline.
It was the only time Swinson could ever recall Kendra doing anything like that before or afterward.
“I don’t know whether he told Randy to do that or the staff did,” said Tommy Bowden, adding that it was very uncommon for players to have the freedom to do things like that back then.
When Kendra dropped back, Randy Holloway, Randy Couzens and Ed Wilamowaski were all in his face and just as Wilamowaski was about to unload on Kendra, the quarterback was able to loft a pass down the far sideline in the general direction of Swinson.
“All I knew was when I turned up that sideline and looked back toward him I saw the ball,” said Swinson. “All I was supposed to do was go up and catch it. I didn’t know where I was catching it at. I didn’t know how far I had gotten down the field. I didn’t see any defender – nothing. I just did what he told me to do; he threw it to me and I had to catch the ball.”
Just as Swinson hauled in the pass free safety Jeff Delaney was there to knock him out of bounds at the Pitt 22. The play covered 26 yards and took only six seconds.
Out came Bill McKenzie, either to be remembered by Mountaineer fans until eternity or blamed as the reason West Virginia tied Pitt that afternoon. Most of his teammates were confident McKenzie could make the kick, yet some of them kept their fingers crossed anyway.
“I was on the sidelines just standing there and I wouldn’t look at the kick,” said Kendra. “I just stared across the field at their coaches.”
“We never really had a good kicker when I was there,” added Peters. “The last good kicker we had was Frank Nester. Bill had this straight-on style, he was a nice guy, but none of us really hung out with him or really knew him that well. I can’t say I had a lot of confidence in him and it was a fairly long kick, so I had to say I was surprised that he made it.”
“Billy was a clutch kid,” said Chuck Smith. “He had a great foot and he put it through the uprights. When Randy stepped out of bounds with four seconds to go I said ‘Billy’s got this. No problem.’”
Swinson, the left end on the protection team, also wasn’t surprised that McKenzie made it.
“We had all the confidence in the world in him – ‘Hey, you are my teammate and this is what we have to do,’” said Swinson. “But it wasn’t a gimme because he was on the left hash mark. He wasn’t lined up in the middle of the post.”
What Swinson remembers most about McKenzie was the way he tied his shoe laces to the first spike on his right cleat to pull his square-toed kicking shoe up into the air as high as it could go. He secured his laces by wrapping them around his ankle.
“He was the last guy I ever saw kick straight-on,” said Swinson.
All McKenzie could do until he was called out onto the field was stand off to the sidelines by himself with his thumbs sticking out of his pants. He didn’t have an opportunity to loosen up his leg because he couldn’t – there was no room on the sidelines to do anything.
“You stretch around and run in place a little bit, but there wasn’t any room for kicking nets even if they had them back then,” said McKenzie in 2007.
Chuck Klausing, the architect of West Virginia’s terrific defensive performance that afternoon, also happened to coach the kickers. He gave all of them the same piece of advice: keep your head down before you kick the ball! McKenzie also got a nice little tip from Nester, who was hanging around town that year helping out the kickers as a student assistant coach. Nester wore two-inch thick glasses and he could barely see his hands in front of him.
“One of the things Frank showed me was to paint a big arrow on the kicking tee and when you go out on the field, point that arrow at the middle of the goal post and then just follow it down and put it on the ground,” McKenzie said. “When you look at the ground and you see the arrow, you know where the goal posts are.”
Of course McKenzie did everything he was told – placing the arrow toward the goal post, keeping his head down all of the way through the kick and driving the ball comfortably between the goal posts as the clock turned to zero (A picture later discovered of McKenzie’s kick from the student section in the end zone showed the flight of the football perfectly centered between the two posts).
It was after McKenzie’s kick when everything became a blur. Some of the WVU students were already on the field before McKenzie’s kick even cleared the bar. Then a large mass of humanity quickly converged on the players at the 22 yard line.
“I thought I was going to die,” said Swinson. “I could not breathe. The whole team was on top of us. That is one helluva feeling. You’re happy but when you’re caught in that position and your teammates pile on top of you that is some serious weight.”
Smith went out to celebrate with his teammates but he was soon distracted by a WVU student under the influence who was walking around searching for his glasses. Smith noticed a busted pair lying on the ground, picked them up and gave them to him.
“The guy put those broken glasses back on and said, ‘Thanks man! This is the greatest day of my life!’” Smith chuckled. “I’m looking at him and I said, ‘Good for you!’”
Smith would always tell that story to his teammates whenever they would get together for reunions and each time he told it they would always cast a wary eye toward him. Then decades later, he was finally able to prove that his act of kindness wasn’t some flight of fantasy.
“I got a copy of the highlight video and it shows the pile going on and you can see me giving the kid his glasses,” said Smith. “The guys would always say, ‘That’s what you did at such a moment?’ I said, ‘Well, I gave the kid his glasses.’”
Dave Van Halanger, now strength and conditioning coach at Georgia after spending many years on Bobby Bowden’s staff at Florida State, said the ‘75 win over Pitt remains one of the most exhilarating moments of his life.
“I can still hear Jack Fleming’s call, ‘There’s a mob scene on the field. You haven’t seen anything like it!’” said Van Halanger. “I gave two people heart attacks that day because I squeezed them too hard. One was an Episcopal priest that would come and pray for us before the games and the other was Jack Hinds’ dad. They both ended up in the hospital after the game because I hugged them so hard.”
The ’75 Pitt game also permanently split up some members of Van Halanger’s family.
“My dad got my uncle Tony tickets to the game and he was rooting against me – he liked Pitt,” laughed Van Halanger. “I never invited him back to my house again after that. Later, he choked on some food during a cruise and went to eternity.”
Some of the players joined the many celebrations going on in Sunnyside later that night – a few of the celebrations even lasting well into the next week. Gary Lombard remembers trying to steer his Volkswagen through a mob of students as a group of them converged on his car and began to rock it.
“I knew one of the guys doing it and I yelled, ‘What are you doing?’ He recognized me and he yelled to his buddies, ‘Hey, that’s Gary Lombard! Let him go through!’ This happened right there at the intersection of University Avenue and Stewartstown Road,” chuckled Lombard.
Dan Kendra was with his girlfriends’ parents as they were trying to navigate their car through the humanity lingering outside the stadium.
“We got into the car to drive away and they saw our Pennsylvania plates and they started shaking the car,” Kendra laughed. “I popped my head out of the window and I said, ‘Hey, I’m a West Virginia player. I’m Dan Kendra, the quarterback!’ They go ‘oh no, let them through! Let them through!’ It was just total chaos.”
Some of the players were right there with them. Others, such as Artie Owens, weren’t really into hanging out that much and just went back to their dorm rooms and listened to all of the commotion going on outside. Chuck Smith, bruised, sore and tired, used what remaining energy he had to climb up on top of a porch roof at a friend’s house in Sunnyside to watch the show going on below them.
And what a show it was!
Antonik is the author of the book Roll Out the Carpet: 101 Seasons of West Virginia University Basketball now available in bookstores.
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