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West Virginia Football: A Historical Blueprint to Slowing Down the Mountaineers

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West Virginia Football: A Historical Blueprint to Slowing Down the Mountaineers
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The 2012 edition of the West Virginia offense is daunting and unstoppable, like a caravan of runaway 18-wheelers piggybacked on a runaway freight train.  Get out of the way, because the presumptive Heisman Trophy winner is leading a talented team up and down the field like it’s Showtime!

Quarterback Geno Smith and the Three Amigos, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, and J.D. Woods, can’t be stopped (credit B/R writer Michael Walker with that).  But maybe they can be slowed down enough to be beaten. 

It’s happened before, in Morgantown of all places.  At Mountaineer Field on a crisp mid-October Saturday, a future Heisman winner and his point-laden attack were the heavy favorites.  When the fog cleared, the intimidators were not only defeated, but dismantled and sent home by a defense with maybe only one or two future NFL draft picks.

There is precedent.

Doug Flutie would go on to be awarded the Heisman Trophy in 1984, leading Boston College to a No.4 ranking after beating Houston in the Cotton Bowl.  But before that bowl victory and before the classic Hail Mary pass Flutie threw to Gerard Phelan to beat Miami, a West Virginia defense of anonymous athletes ruined his day.

Boston College was averaging nearly 40 points per game against some impressive teams.  Flutie led his Eagles into Tuscaloosa, where Boston College pulled off a road upset over ninth-ranked Alabama. 

 

North Carolina, led by head coach Dick Crum , traveled to Chestnut Hill, only to be humbled to the tune of 52-20.  BC defeated Temple at home three weeks later, and the No. 4 Eagles were all set up for their ABC-televised showdown with the No. 19 Mountaineers.

West Virginia limped into the locker room at halftime with Boston College treads on their backs, trailing 20-6.  The fans were shell-shocked.  Doug Flutie was being Doug Flutie with his laser-accurate passing and ability to run outside the pocket to extend plays.

I was watching the game on ABC, disheartened by how BC was owning WVU with no relief in sight.

The sideline reporter caught West Virginia head coach Don Nehlen running onto the field for the second half.  She asked, “Coach, you’re down 20-6 and Doug Flutie’s on fire.  What are you going to do?”

Nehlen didn’t miss a beat with his response, “Well, I think we’re going out there to have some fun.  That’s what we’re going to do.”

In 2003, I had the unexpected pleasure of sharing a luxury box with, among others, Nehlen, who was being honored at halftime for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.  I was honored to have a five-minute conversation with him.

“Coach,” I began, “If I may trouble you, I got to know.  Please tell me how you beat Boston College and Doug Flutie.”

“Son,” Nehlen said, “that was almost 20 years ago.”

 

“Yeah, but, Coach, it was a remarkable victory, and it will stand the test of time, at least while I’m alive.”

Nehlen paused. “Well,” he began, “we were getting waxed, so at halftime I had to do something.  I had asked my good friend Dick Crum that week how to beat Flutie, and Dick said you had to contain him and make the short guy pass from the pocket.  We did that, and the scoreboard said we weren’t doing it very well.   Flutie still broke containment and sprinted out and was killing us.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“So, I got together with the defensive coaches.  We decided we’re going down in a blaze of glory, just like the Old West gunfighters.  We decided to blitz the little fellow and see what happens.  It was better than laying back and having him take it to us.”

“We decided we were going to have a little fun out there.”

That second half, West Virginians at Mountaineer Field and those watching all across the nation had some fun.  WVU’s defense, made up of a bunch of no-names, held Doug Flutie in check with confusing blitzes, sending five and, at times, six rushers.

It was as if Flutie had never been blitzed.  He was rattled and wasn't able to get Boston College in scoring position, much less the end zone.

After WVU took a 21-20 lead late in the fourth quarter, both teams lined up for one final shot.  These situations, trailing and having his back against the wall, were the times for which Doug Flutie was made.

 

One would think that a defense would back up in prevent packages.  Not that day.  As Flutie drove down the field looking to score, West Virginia displayed incredible aggressiveness. 

Eight hungry Mountaineers were jumping around on the line, while the defensive backs were in the BC wideouts’ faces.  Flutie barely had a second or two as Nehlen sent six or seven, with three rushers off the edges. 

Fred Smalls, a West Virginia nickelback, sacked the Heisman candidate twice in that final drive.  Both sacks were from the blindside, as Doug Flutie was the only one in the United States who didn’t know he was about to be hit by a cement truck.

On fourth and long, nine adrenaline-stoked WVU defenders lined up over the heads of five Boston College blockers.  Astonishingly, all nine blitzed, forcing Flutie to heave a pass downfield.  The ball hit the turf and rolled harmlessly to the end zone.

Considering all the awards and honors Doug Flutie received, and rightfully so as an uncommonly gifted college football player, the Boston College quarterback had four chances at it and could not beat West Virginia.  It had to hurt.

You know how it is when nothing is working and everyone has advice?  This is one of those times.  Here’s my advice to defenders preparing to face Geno Smith and West Virginia, coming from an old man of 56 years whose athletic exploits are now highly intense training regimens like boot camp:

1) It’s all attitude.  Attitude is all you have.  Create an attitude that forces you to man up every play as if you are the best, because you are.

 

2) Do not allow yourself to have any short-term memory.  Whatever happened during that last play, good or bad, doesn’t matter.  Move on.

3) Play as if your life depends on it, because it does.  What else are you doing right now?

4) Take chances.  West Virginia can ring up 70 with relative ease.  Why stand back?  If you’re rushing, be like Maryland and make Geno uncomfortably go quickly through his progressions.

5) Take the advice of the late Bill Stewart: Do not bail out on your brothers.  Do not leave your wingman.   Stick together forever.  We Boots do that and it works!

6) I’ve watched enough non-collision college football drills to discover we Boots do a lot of what you do.  And it’s tough!  So here’s my best advice: Tape your wrist, write on the tape the words that drive you to excellence, and read them often.  Mine?  “Dig Deep!  Dig In!”

7) Pride plus desire does indeed equal champions.

Do it, baby!

Go for it!

Tim McGhee is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

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