The Mountaineer Killers
As a long-suffering Pittsburgh Pirate fan, I have many sour memories to ponder - Bob Moose’s ninth-inning rock-skipper to the backstop that plated George Foster for the winning run in the 1972 National League Championship Series or Sid Bream carrying a piano on his back as he rounded third base and a pre-BALCO Barry Bonds eight-hopping his throw to the plate as Bream slid in for the winning run – are two that immediately come to mind.
Current Pittsburgh Steelers fans may not be long suffering, but they do harbor their own disappointments, like failing to see the Black and Gold score from the three in an AFC championship game loss to San Diego in 1995, or watching Larry Brown steal Neil O’Donnell’s lunch in Super Bowl XXX, or getting Tebowed in Denver last year in an AFC Wild Card game loss to the Broncos.
Any hit list issued by Pirate fans would likely include the names Steve Carlton, Greg Maddux, Gary Carter, Mike Scott, Jack Clark and Doc Gooden. The Steelers hit list would probably include Tom Brady, Warren Moon, Bernie Kosar and Fred Taylor.
I bring this up because every sports fan has scar tissue, and that certainly includes West Virginia Mountaineer football fans. There have been many great players through the years who have made life miserable around here, starting with a guy named Jim Brown in 1955.
All week heading into the Mountaineers’ game against Syracuse that season, Coach Art Lewis emphasized to his team that he didn’t want any long kickoffs to Brown. Kick it anywhere but to Brown, including the stands, Lewis demanded. But Sam Huff, who doubled as the team’s kickoff man, had a different idea. He argued that kicking the ball to Brown would give them a chance to gang up on him and “clobber him good.” Lewis went against his better judgment and agreed to let Huff kick to Brown and when he got the ball, Brown proceeded to run through West Virginia’s coverage unit like a hot knife through butter. Syracuse went on to defeat the Mountaineers 20-13 behind Brown’s impressive running. Who knew Jim Brown would go on to become the greatest running back in professional football history … likely everyone in the stadium that afternoon!
For WVU fans eager to get the 1963 football season underway, Navy’s Roger Staubach took care of any unrealistic expectations by completely decimating an out-manned Mountaineer secondary. Staubach’s performance cannot be considered the best ever against West Virginia simply because he didn’t play long enough, the Heisman Trophy winner completing 17-of-22 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown before heading to the sidelines at halftime.
The same goes for Miami’s Vinny Testaverde, who sliced and diced West Virginia’s defense for 188 yards and three touchdowns in a little more than a half’s worth of work. A couple of days before the game, Mountaineer coach Don Nehlen asked his defensive coordinator Dennis Brown if he thought they had any chance of pulling off the big upset win against the No. 1-ranked Hurricanes. Brown said it was possible, provided Nehlen’s struggling offense could somehow figure out a way to score 60 points. It turns out Brown was right on the money because the Hurricanes ended up scoring 58 that afternoon.
Back in 1962, Terry Baker was shooting fish in a barrel during Oregon State’s 51-22 victory over West Virginia in Portland. The Heisman Trophy winner ended up completing 11-of-19 passes for 177 yards and three touchdowns before handing the gun off to the reserves. The only thing worse than Baker filleting the Mountaineer secondary was the nine-hour plane ride the team had to endure back to Morgantown.
Oklahoma State’s Thurman Thomas put on a show in the 1987 Sun Bowl out in El Paso, Texas, running around, past and through West Virginia for 157 yards and four touchdowns in a 35-33 Cowboy victory. “I tell everybody that was probably one of the reasons why I got drafted with Buffalo because they saw me play in cold weather in the snow," Thomas once told me.
In 1994, Nebraska’s Tommie Frazier was a man among boys, passing for 100 yards and a touchdown while also running for 130 yards and three scores in Nebraska’s 31-0 blanking of the Mountaineers in the Kickoff Classic in Giants Stadium.
Fleet-footed Michael Vick’s lightning-like burst up the far sideline in 1999 gave upset-minded West Virginia fans indigestion when Shayne Graham turned that scramble into the game-winning field goal. Vick’s two-year totals against West Virginia included 24-of-48 passing for 488 yards and two touchdowns with an additional 107 yards on the ground. More importantly for the Hokies, Tech won both games against the Mountaineers with Vick under center.
Boston College’s Mike Cloud’s last two seasons against West Virginia in 1997-98 were certainly stat-sheet stuffers, his 211 yards and two touchdowns produced in ‘97 nearly duplicated a year later when he ran for 179 yards and a touchdown in Morgantown.
Glenn Foley didn’t win often against West Virginia, but the BC quarterback did compile some impressive numbers against the Mountaineers, completing 76-of-128 passes for 1,092 yards and six touchdowns.
Rutgers’ Ray Rice never got the best of West Virginia on the scoreboard, either, but he did put up two big games against WVU when he ran for a combined 271 yards and two touchdowns. The same goes for Pitt’s Larry Fitzgerald, who was 0-2 against West Virginia, although he did catch 20 passes for 344 yards and four scores in back-to-back losses to the Mountaineers in 2002-03.
Yet when you begin to really talk about the Mountaineer Killers – the guys who gave you lasting heartburn on a yearly basis - here are 10 players who certainly fit the bill:
10. Blair Thomas (Penn State) – Blair Thomas didn’t play much of a role in Penn State’s two wins against West Virginia in 1985 and 1986, but that changed in 1987 when Thomas ran 36 times for 181 yards and a touchdown in Penn State’s, 25-21, come-from-behind win over the Mountaineers. After missing the ‘88 game in Morgantown because of a serious knee injury (a game Penn State lost), Thomas came back to run for 150 yards to lead the Nittany Lions to a tough, 19-9 victory over WVU in 1989. Thomas is the only back in Penn State history to run for more than 1,300 yards in two seasons, and it seems like most of them came against West Virginia.
9. Joe Morris (Syracuse) – Little Joe Morris had two scholarship offers following his senior season in Ayer, Mass. – one being from Syracuse and the other from New Hampshire – and he picked the lowly Orange because he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life wondering what he could have done if he didn’t play Division I football. Well, Morris became Syracuse’s all-time rushing leader, surpassing the likes of Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Jim Nance, Floyd Little and Larry Csonka. He was particularly torturous to West Virginia, running for 99 yards in a 1978 win in Morgantown, gaining 166 yards in another Syracuse triumph over the Mountaineers in Giants Stadium in ‘79, and then after missing the 1980 game in Morgantown, putting a bow on things by running for 168 yards and two touchdowns in Syracuse’s season-ending victory over the Peach Bowl-bound Mountaineers. “He was a stud,” recalled West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck, who faced Morris all three times he played against the Mountaineers. “He just ran all over us in the Carrier Dome my senior year.”
8. LeSean McCoy (Pitt) – Here is how good LeSean McCoy was against West Virginia the two times he faced the Mountaineers: He rushed for 331 yards and scored two touchdowns in back-to-back victories over the Mountaineers in 2007 and 2008 with a couple of Uncle Ricos playing quarterback for the Panthers. During Pitt’s 2007 colossal upset victory over the Mountaineers in Morgantown, McCoy ran 38 times for 148 yards, carrying the ball on more than half of Pitt’s total plays from scrimmage. McCoy got the ball five times on Pitt’s go-ahead scoring drive in the third quarter, and then in the fourth quarter, he ran the ball five out of the six plays leading to Connor Lee’s 18-yard field goal with 6:17 to go. A year later, McCoy rushed for 183 yards with two touchdowns, including the game-clinching score with 52 seconds remaining. Pitt tried to use McCoy as a decoy earlier in the game on a couple of unsuccessful goal line situations, but on the winning drive, McCoy got the football all but once, marching the Panthers 59 yards in 10 plays.
7. Charlie Pittman (Penn State) – Penn State tailback Charlie Pittman never lost a game in which he started and that includes both times the Nittany Lions faced West Virginia in 1968 (31-20) and in 1969 (20-0) with Pittman major factors in both wins. Also, it was his 83-yard kickoff return for a touchdown at the beginning of the second half of the 1967 game that broke the Mountaineers’ back in a 21-14 Penn State victory up in State College. At the time, the Lions were only leading 14-7. In three career games against West Virginia, the Baltimore native rushed for 346 yards and two touchdowns, including 100-yard performances in 1967 (137) and 1968 (125). He added four catches for 70 yards to his 1968 stat totals against WVU.
6. Donovan McNabb (Syracuse) – Donovan McNabb’s dominance of West Virginia began as a freshman in 1995 with a 96-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Harrison, and continued with beatings in 1996 and 1997. McNabb passed for 308 yards and two touchdowns in Syracuse’s 22-0 victory in 1995, he threw two more TD passes in a 30-7 rout in 1996, and then contributed 281 yards and three touchdowns through the air in a 40-10 pasting in 1997. Despite a 35-28 loss to the Mountaineers in Morgantown in 1998, McNabb was still outstanding, completing 16-of-29 passes for 281 yards and three touchdowns. In four career games against West Virginia, McNabb completed 52-of-95 passes for 880 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also rushed for two more scores. Not too shabby.
5. Floyd Little (Syracuse) – Perhaps it was West Virginia’s 28-27 come-from-behind victory in Morgantown that spoiled the ending to a Sugar Bowl-bound season for Syracuse in 1964 that stuck in Floyd Little’s craw. Whatever it was, Little came back with a vengeance, rushing 30 times for 196 yards and scoring four touchdowns in Syracuse’s 41-19 victory over the Mountaineers in Morgantown in 1965 and adding 127 yards and two scores in a 34-7 Orangemen victory in Syracuse in 1966. Little wasn’t bad in the ’64 loss either, gaining 96 yards on 21 carries and scoring a touchdown before Bob Dunlevy made his unforgettable game-winning catch. In three career games against West Virginia, the New Haven, Conn., native accumulated 419 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground.
4. John Cappelletti (Penn State) – On the eve of Penn State’s 1973 game against West Virginia, John Cappelletti asked his ailing younger brother Joey (suffering from leukemia) what he would like for his 11th birthday. Joey responded, “Four touchdowns.” Well, Cappelletti had three of them by the end of the first half and was relegated to the bench as Penn State was cruising toward a 62-14 thrashing of the Mountaineers. Somehow, Joe Paterno found out about Cappelletti’s promise to his little brother and the coach decided to put him back into the game to get his fourth TD. “Had I known about it,” recalled West Virginia coach Bobby Bowden years later, “I wish he would have scored five!” The Heisman Trophy winner finished the game with 130 yards and four touchdowns on the ground, a year after producing 154 yards on 34 carries in helping Penn State to a 43-12 victory over West Virginia in Morgantown in 1972.
3. Ken Dorsey (Miami) – There is no question Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey enjoyed playing against West Virginia – or at least WVU’s secondary - the Orinde, Calif., native leading the Hurricanes to 40-plus-point performances all three times he faced the Mountaineers. In 2000, Dorsey passed for 291 yards and two touchdowns in a 47-10 victory in Morgantown. A year later in the Orange Bowl, Dorsey completed 16-of-27 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns before an early exit as the Hurricanes rolled to an easy 45-3 triumph. And in 2002, he passed for a career-high 422 yards and two touchdowns in Miami’s 40-23 victory in Morgantown. Added all up, Dorsey completed 60-of-96 passes for 905 yards and six touchdowns against the Mountaineers. That's getting it done!
2. Tony Dorsett (Pitt) – Four times Tony Dorsett faced West Virginia and all four times he rushed for more than 100 yards against the Mountaineer defense. As a freshman in 1973, Dorsett ran 24 times for 150 yards and three touchdowns – all three scores coming in the second half of a game Pitt won 35-7 in Morgantown. Dorsett tacked on 145 yards and another touchdown during Pitt’s 31-14 triumph over West Virginia at Pitt Stadium in 1974. And he finished his career with 199 yards and three touchdowns in a hard-fought, 24-16 win over the Mountaineers in a 1976 game that saw Dorsett fail to set an NCAA record of three consecutive 200-yard rushing games only because he got ejected near the end for igniting a bench-clearing brawl. “He was cocky, but what a great football player he was,” recalled West Virginia offensive lineman Dave Van Halanger. Even in Pitt’s loss to West Virginia in 1975, Dorsett was a factor, gaining 107 yards on the ground and catching a 9-yard touchdown pass from Matt Cavanaugh. Dorsett’s four-game rushing totals against West Virginia showed 122 carries for 601 yards and seven touchdowns. If not for that ’75 loss, Dorsett clearly would have been No. 1 on this list.
1. Larry Csonka (Syracuse) – West Virginia kicker Ken Juskowich knew his team was in big trouble when he overheard Larry Csonka say “nice tackle little fella” to West Virginia defensive tackle Charlie Fisher. “(Fisher) was one of our biggest defensive guys!” Juskowich recalled. Csonka ran for 117 yards and a touchdown in helping Syracuse to a 23-6 beating that was far worse than it looked on the scoreboard. Several West Virginia players were knocked out of that game, prompting offensive coordinator Bobby Bowden to remark afterward that West Virginia didn’t leave Syracuse but instead was "evacuated.” Csonka ran for 145 yards and scored a touchdown in Syracuse’s 34-7 victory over West Virginia in 1966, a year after battering West Virginia to the tune of 216 yards and two touchdowns in a 22-point Orangemen win in 1965. In three career games against West Virginia, Csonka rushed 70 times for 478 yards and four touchdowns and the Orangemen won all three games by an average margin of 22 points per game. Ouch.
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