Mountaineer Moments in Adversity Part Nine

Mountaineer Moments in Adversity Part Nine

As we round into our pre-season coverage for the West Virginia Mountaineers 2022 football season, we also round out of our series on Mountaineer moments in adversity. WVU has been on its share of lopsided rivalries in its favor, but it has a few where the tide pulls against the Mountaineers. The 59-game series against Penn State features one such series. The Nittany Lions have been one of the many faces of Mountaineer moments in adversity over the years. In this part, however, we look at the Mountaineers’ 1984 season.

An Up-and-Down History

Since 1992, West Virginia has not faced Penn State. As a result, those who live outside of the Mountain State do not generally consider the Nittany Lions a rival, per se. Old-school Mountaineer fans carry a different history, though. Through the 1950s and 1960s, the Mountaineers tried to assemble a group of East Coast football schools into a formal conference. These efforts culminated, in a way, in a loose affiliation led by old-guard schools like Princeton and Penn State. Princeton fought hard to keep this affiliation alive without losing schools to the effort to formalize into a conference. By some accounts (but not all), Penn State remained a Princeton ally in these efforts.

By the time the 1980s rolled around, however, Penn State changed its tune. Joe Paterno, in fact, led the charge to build the conference West Virginia envisioned all those years ago. The conference would feature teams like Pitt, Penn State, West Virginia, Boston College, Virginia Tech, Rutgers, and Syracuse, among others. The greasy wheel here, however, was Pitt, who vetoed the idea multiple times.

Had Pitt come to its senses earlier, perhaps the lay of the land would be very different. Likely, Penn State does not regret the past since this paved the way for the Nittany Lions to join the Big Ten (which is the reason the schools have not played since 1992).

A Lop-Sided Rivalry

Through this, Penn State became the face of what the Mountaineers chased: national relevance through the featuring of hard-nosed, physical “East Coast” football. Penn State found plenty of success in all three decades (the 50s, the 60s, and the 80s–and beyond). The Mountaineers still searched for their identity.

As with most stories from this era, WVU finally found that identity when they convinced Head Coach Don Nehlen to man the helm. That said, his Mountaineers still struggled with Penn State. Between 1955 and 1983, the Nittany Lions held the Mountaineers winless in 28 attempts. In that way, Penn State became a hated rival for the Mountaineers, representing a mountain they, simply, could not eclipse.

Then Came 1984

That would change in 1984, though. Penn State was not far removed from its 1982 National Championship season. They rode into Morgantown ranked 19th with a 5-2 record. Their only losses came to second-ranked Texas and Alabama. WVU wondered if it could replicate its own emotional high from the week prior, having bested fourth-ranked Boston College. Fans remained reluctant, to say the least, to envision a win over the might Nittany Lions.

Both teams played physical football, and the Mountaineers held on to a 10-7 lead in the third quarter. With Penn State moving the football, the Mountaineers forced a fumble that John Mozes recovered. Three plays later, Pat Randolph ran in for a 22-yard touchdown run to give West Virginia a 17-7 lead. Penn State scored to close that gap to 17-14.

Again, a turnover would decide the outcome. In the game’s closing minute, Penn State found itself driving, hoping to get into field goal range to tie the game. Then, with 35 seconds left, Larry Holley grabbed an interception and students poured onto the field in celebration. Finally, the Mountaineers climbed that particular mountain.

For many Mountaineer fans, this may represent the sweetest of our Mountaineer moments in adversity when weighed against that history.