It's November 20, 1993 and the nascent Big East is concluding it's first season of full round robin play. College football is on the cusp of it's late 90s explosion, ESPN College GameDay having made it's first ever road trip the week before to see Florida State take on Notre Dame in South Bend. On this day however the eyes of the college football world shifted to Morgantown, West Virginia where the #9 Mountaineers host the #4 Miami Hurricanes.
The 9-0 Mountaineers are peaking, having won their last 3 games in convincing fashion: 43-0 (Syracuse) 58-22 (Rutgers) and 49-7 (Temple). A season that began with modest expectations & a series of close calls had evolved into the team's second title chase in 5 years. At 8-1 the Hurricanes have played their way back into the top 5 after an early season loss to the aforementioned FSU team and were looking for a road win over a top 10 team to burnish their resume. Not only a Big East title, but a national crown are on the line this night.
Fans across the state spent the week glued to weather updates. Snow was a possibility and they wanted every advantage when the warm-weather Hurricanes came to town. There were stories that an order for sideline kerosene heaters made weeks before the game by Miami had been "lost" (although it's worth noting they showed up armed with electric powered warming benches). Such was the importance attached to this game in the hills of West Virginia that business profits were rendered secondary.
To call the atmosphere at Mountaineer Field raucous would be an understatement. After a dismal 3 year run of bowl-less football, the blue and gold faithful can smell an undefeated season. A record 70,222 jam into the seats, all but mocking the fire marshal in forming the "largest city in West Virginia."
(note: I was always amazed at the difference between that game and the next on the record attendance list at WVU. #2 is in the 68,000 range. What in the hell did they DO that night? How did they squeeze in 70,000 people? This will bug me until the day I die.)
The game is a back and forth battle early with neither team able to take advantage with this day doing as much as any to forge WVU coach Don Nehlen's reputation as a conservative play caller. Twice WVU enters Miami territory (once breaking inside the 5), missing one field goal but nailing another from 22. WVU, clearly the more physical team, isn't taking any chances. WVU heads to the locker room with a slim 3-0 lead.
Things pick up in the second half and the Hurricanes strike first, scoring a TD early in the third quarter for a 7-3 lead. WVU answers with a 13 play drive capped by a 1 yard TD pass to fullback Rodney Woodard on third and goal. As they have so many times, the Gold and Blue seemed to be taking control as night fell on the Mountaineer Field.
Miami wasn't done however as a scrambling Ryan Collins hit AC Tellisonon a busted play with a strike down to the 2 yard line to end the third quarter. A short run to the end zone with 12 minutes remaining gave the 'Canes the lead once again at 14-10. The WVU offense was unable to get anything going on the ensuing possession, but the stout defense held Miami to another punt. With time winding down, the electric Mike Baker nearly broke his return, setting up Jake Kelchner and the WVU offense with prime field position at the Miami 31.
On a day where the offense failed to capitalize on seemingly every opportunity handed to them by the defense and special teams, they jumped all over this final one. Just minutes after Baker's return, sophomore running back speedster Robert Walker made one cut, then another before racing 19 yards untouched down the left sideline and into the end zone with 6:19 left to give WVU the deciding points and send the stadium into pandamonium.
A little work remained, but the defense held fast and the offense drove out the clock, hitting on a long pass and a reverse. WVU held on to win by that magical Mountaineer score of 17-14. Fans converged upon the field and rapidly tore down the goal posts for the second time that year (an October game against 15th ranked Louisville was the first), setting off a celebration that would last through the night. West Virginia had beaten a ranked team for just the second time that year and would vault upwards in the polls. Kelchner and Company had proven they were for real and would take on Boston College (fresh off their road upset of top ranked Notre Dame that same day) the next week.
The game was a landmark moment for any Mountaineer fan, especially this 14 year old one who stood screaming in the end zone that Walker sprinted into on that final TD and grabbed the goal post upright as it was passed through the stands. It was a night where toughness won out, as evidenced by the indelible image of Miami players huddled on the warming benches as WVU linemen stood unflinching in short sleeves.
In a larger sense it was a sign that the undefeated 1988 season was no fluke and WVU would be a long-term force to be reckoned with on the college football landscape. Accordingly it could be stated that this game was the beginning of the end for Miami's era of dominance. That season they would go on to lose the Fiesta Bowl in embarrassing fashion, 29-0, to Arizona's "Desert Swarm." The next season their record 58 game home win streak would come to an end and the year after that Sports Illustrated famously suggested the corrupt program drop football altogether. it would be half a decade until they regained relevance in college football but it would never again be the dominant stature once enjoyed.
As for the new Big East, this was the first true showcase game in the first season of complete round robin play. WVU would go on to win the conference that year, demonstrating that despite national perception, the league was far more than Miami and her weak sisters. One could even go so far as to say this game was the first big step forward in the construction of the football bona fides that would allow the Big East to survive the defection of that same Miami team a decade later.
The football Big East may have been born in 1991, but it learned to walk and talk on its own that frigid November night in Morgantown.
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