A Season to Remember
It seemed like just about every football game that West Virginia played in 1992 was on Friday the 13th, at least that’s how Don Nehlen remembers it.
Nothing went right that year, from bad bounces to botched calls to bench-clearing brawls that wound up derailing what might have been a pretty good football season for the Mountaineers. Instead, West Virginia posted a very ordinary 5-4-2 record and the players and coaches spent the holidays watching all the bowl games from their living rooms.
“That ’92 team, when we fumbled the football it bounced right in their hands and when we got an injury it would be on a Wednesday night before a Saturday game,” Nehlen recalled. “I remember telling them, ‘Hey, don’t any of you guys ask me to walk over a bridge with you because I know that damned thing is going to fall down.’ I felt so bad for that team because it was really a good team, but nothing seemed to go right for them.”
During one game that season, Nehlen remembered watching one of his tailbacks running out in the open with nobody near him heading for an apparent touchdown but never making it to the end zone.
“There were 21 players behind him and he kind of glanced back over his shoulder and as he did it he dropped the ball,” said Nehlen. “Just crazy things that never happened.”
A year later, in 1993, it was the exact opposite.
The ’93 team didn’t have the star power the ’92 team had with All-American center Mike Compton, dynamic tailback Adrian Murrell and world-class sprinter James Jett – all long-time NFL performers – but it did have 27 seniors, a tough, physical, overachieving offensive line, solid linebackers, a smart and versatile secondary and a two-headed quarterback monster that an experienced coach like Nehlen was able to tame. Had he been younger, or not quite as established, that could have been an issue.
“The fact that we had two quarterbacks … that’s always a pressure situation on a coach because those two kids were good and both of them deserved to play so we played them both,” said Nehlen. “We handled it a little differently. We told them, ‘Hey, Jake (Kelchner) is going to start and play the first two or three series and then Darren (Studstill) is going to come in and play two.’ It worked all year.”
Studstill was the program player recruited from Riveria Beach, Fla., while Kelchner was the five-star transfer from Notre Dame who, according to Nehlen, "both got along tremendously."
There can be many issues with a two-quarterback system – some obvious, and some not so obvious, Kelchner once recalled.
“If one guy is with the first string 90 percent of the time he’s getting that feel and bond with the first team,” he explained. “If you are going to switch it up … you have a first string offensive line and a second string offensive line and your center, your running backs … your timing will always be different if you always run with the second string. Then (the second team quarterback) goes in and sometimes they switch centers and sometimes they don’t.
“Also, what most people don’t realize is when you take a guy that has been sitting on the bench and force him to come into the game after he’s been standing on the sidelines and he’s not loosened up, you’re putting a guy in a bad situation. What the backup is going to do is he is going to go out and force the issue because he knows he’s only got one or two series.”
Which is exactly why Nehlen decided to use the athletic Studstill at a predetermined time each game as a changeup to Kelchner - and with great effectiveness. The offense also got a big boost midway through the season when tailback Robert Walker figured out how to hold onto the football and got his himself moving in the right direction.
Nehlen wasn’t sure what he had in Walker, who once played offensive guard in high school before settling on running back later in his prep career. As a sophomore in 1993, Walker began getting the bulk of the carries when Jimmy Gary also struggled with fumbles and Jon Jones got hurt.
“(Jones) was a big back, 215 pounds and a slasher and Robert was 185-190-pound kid who had that great burst,” Nehlen said. “He was a real player for us and he had some great runs that year.”
Three Walker touchdown runs – a 50-yarder in the third quarter against Louisville, a 90-yard jaunt early in the fourth quarter at Syracuse, and his unforgettable, 19-yard burst off left tackle against Miami were each season-altering plays.
That moment came with 6:08 remaining in a tight 14-10 contest the Mountaineers were trailing.
“They flip-flopped their linebackers and they covered (Burgess) up,” Nehlen said. “He was a great player but he was little. We knew he could run us down, so we decided that we were just going to run at him and run at him and run at him and finally in the fourth quarter we got him. We ran right over him and that was with my fullback and Robert was coming right behind him. Once Robert cleared that, none of them could catch him.”
Just thinking about that play makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. The Mountaineers had just punched one of college football’s big boys right in the mouth and knocked him out.
A week later, at 11th-ranked Boston College, Nehlen needed to use everything he had in his bag of tricks to pull that one out. No. 1, the Eagles were really good that year. BC had knocked off top-ranked Notre Dame in South Bend the week prior and had a future two-time Super Bowl winning head coach in Tom Coughlin. No. 2, West Virginia was a beat-up football team with just five days of prep to get ready to face the eight-win Eagles on the road. Plus, half the team was sick with the flu.
“We were just a mess,” said Nehlen. “I can’t remember which coach of mine, who had press box responsibilities, was so sick that he couldn’t go up there, but we kept him on the field and had to switch that around.
“That game was unbelievable to go up there and beat them,” Nehlen continued. “You know Tom’s a pretty good coach and to beat those guys under those conditions with a team that was so beat up … that team refused to lose and they were going to play all 60 minutes, I want to tell you that.”
Boston College was leading 14-9 and had the ball with less than four minutes remaining in the game when the Eagles marched deep into WVU territory poised to deliver the knockout blow.
Freshman Mike Logan was brought off the short corner, sophomore Aaron Beasley came from the wide side and defensive end Steve Perkins was able to jar the ball loose from running back David Green where Logan was there to scoop it up at the WVU 27.
“I forget which kid came up to me and said, ‘Coach don’t worry, we’re going to go down and score.’ I said, ‘Well make sure you hurry up because there’s only about a minute and a half left!’ We hadn’t moved the ball all night and this kid comes up, pops me in the belly, and says ‘don’t worry, Coach.’ Amazing.”
Studstill, now in the game for an injured Kelchner, directed a 63-yard scoring drive that ended with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Ed Hill in the corner of the end zone: West Virginia 17, Boston College 14.
“I remember ’81 Deep Switch’ was the play and Darren saw it and he hit Eddie in the end zone,” said Nehlen.
After the game, when the two coaches shook hands in the middle of the field, an exasperated Coughlin asked Nehlen how in the hell West Virginia won that game. Nehlen said he wasn’t sure.
“We had a bunch of really good kids, they hung together well, and it was amazing that we got through that thing undefeated,” said Nehlen.
It was West Virginia’s second undefeated, untied regular season in a span of five years. The Mountaineers in 1993 went from being picked in the middle of the pack in the Big East to league champions in the first year of round-robin play.
The same formula Nehlen used to develop West Virginia’s first unblemished, untied team in 1988 was employed once again in 1993. He did it through shrewd recruiting, great player development and a never-ending infectious enthusiasm that permeated throughout the program.
"The five-star recruit and the four-star recruits were all at Penn State,” Nehlen said. “You could go on one campus and find all those guys, but we didn’t worry about it because we never got those guys anyway.
“When we recruited a kid we were going to redshirt him. Our program was established,” Nehlen said. “We had 85 kids on a grant and we always had 15, 18 to 20 seniors, but it took us a while to get there. That ’88 team, for example, other than (offensive lineman Brian) Smider, none of those kids was recruited by big-time schools and they played for the national championship because of our program.
“The same way with the ’93 team,” Nehlen continued. “(Offensive tackle) Rich Braham turned out to be a great player – he may have been the best offensive lineman we ever had here. I mean, he was our most aggressive lineman and when we got him we didn’t have a clue (what to do with him).”
Even a highly disappointing 41-7 loss to Florida in the 1994 Sugar Bowl cannot tarnish what that ’93 West Virginia football team accomplished, going from nowhere to the top of the college football world in a span of just a few months.
“The ’93 team won ‘em all … anytime you win every football game you’ve got to be good, but you’ve got to be lucky, too, especially when you’re playing the schedule we were playing then,” said Nehlen.
This week, many of those players will be in town for Saturday’s Texas game as part of a 20-year team reunion sponsored by the WVU Varsity Club.
For Nehlen, that was a fun group of players to be around and coach.
“It was always fun to coach a bunch of guys who liked to play - guys who were going to play all four quarters,” he said. “And they liked to practice. We had some fun in practice, too.
“I was proud to have been their coach, I’ll tell you that.”
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