Mountaineer Moments in Adversity Part Eight
Fall Camp for the West Virginia Mountaineers began Saturday. The 2022 edition of the Backyard Brawl kicks off in four-and-a-half weeks. As the season opener approaches, we enter the home stretch of our Mountaineer moments in adversity series. We continue in this part eight as we began in part one, looking at a moment in the history of the Backyard Brawl.
Tough Stretch for Nehlen
After finding one of the Mountaineers’ first periods of sustained success in years two through five of Head Coach Don Nehlen‘s tenure, WVU struggled to maintain that consistency into the 1986 and 1987 seasons. After Nehlen’s first season that resulted in a six and six split, the Mountaineers reached the post-season for four straight years. In those 1981 through 1984 seasons, the Mountaineers accumulated a 35-13 record with four straight bowl appearances and prevailing in three of those. To frame this properly, fans should recall that West Virginia appeared in eight total bowls in the preceding 68 seasons. The Mountaineers also appeared in at least one AP poll in each of those seasons.
The Mountaineers hit a rough stretch beginning in 1985, however. They failed to appear in a bowl in 1985 despite finishing with seven wins, a tie, and three losses. Then, in 1986 and 1987, they combined for just a 10-13 record. Indeed, this was the first of our true Mountaineer moments in adversity during Nehlen’s early years.
Enter Major Harris
In 1987, however, the college football world took notice of a young Major Harris. True dual threat quarterbacks were few and far between in this era, of course, so Harris captivated audiences early by running for 500 yards as a freshman signal caller. Expectations surrounding Harris in his sophomore campaign represented a major (pun intended) reason for WVU entering the 1988 season in the pre-season AP poll, their first such appearance since 1970 and only the fourth such appearance in school history at that time.
Keep in mind that, as we have discussed in our series chronicling the modern era of West Virginia football, WVU had not historically found much success against AP ranked teams until Nehlen’s arrival. That said, despite the strong start to his era in that regard, West Virginia rode an eight-game losing streak against ranked teams heading into the 1988 season. Harris may have given the Mountaineers a boost in national perception, but they still had to prove it on the field.
Backyard Brawl: the True Shift in a Rivalry
This goes back to part one of our series, where the Mountaineers won their first game ever against a ranked opponent in 1952 against none other than the Pitt Panthers. We called that a turning point in the two teams’ rivalry, and it was. It represented the first time WVU proved they belonged in a national conversation. Prior to that moment, Pitt owned the rivalry by a wide margin, winning 34 of the prior 44 games. Between 1952 and 1987, West Virginia closed that margin, going 15-20-1 against Pitt in those years.
1988, however, represents the next gear in that shift.
West Virginia won its first three games that season against unranked foes easily. They traveled to Pitt for game four, and Pitt looked to build on its momentum having demolished a ranked Ohio State Buckeye team by a score of 42-10 the week before. Based on that win, Pitt entered the game ranked 16th in the nation. The 1988 Backyard Brawl represented just the fourth time both teams entered the game ranked since 1953. The Mountaineers had lost the last two such matchups.
In this iteration, however, the Mountaineers cruised to a 31-10 victory over the Panthers (helped by a Pitt transfer in Anthony Brown). The win pushed the Mountaineers into the top ten teams in the nation. Including this 1988 game, West Virginia owns a 16-7-1 advantage in the Backyard Brawl. Thus, the game represents a true shift in the trajectory of these two teams.
How is that for part eight of our Mountaineer moments in adversity?