Something changed. The expectation of winning crept into the West Virginia psyche. Players, coaches, students, and fans alike slowly bought into Don Nehlen’s philosophy.
Belief was gradual, however. Even after victories over Virginia, Maryland, Colorado State, Boston College, Virginia Tech, East Carolina, and Temple, West Virginia fans were stung by the annual losses to No. 4 Pittsburgh in our backyard and No. 1 Penn State on the road. The combined score of the Quaker State debacle was 7-47. Ouch!
West Virginia hosted Rutgers in the mid-November crisp air at final home game of the 1981 season. Despite the Mountaineers owning an impressive 7-2 record, one of every five seats was empty at the new Mountaineer Field. The WVU defense held the Scarlet Knights to a field goal, but few believed, especially the pollsters.
It got worse. The Mountaineers blew a lead in the finale at Syracuse, losing 24-27.
The only good thing that came out of the 8-3 season is that no one was satisfied. One of the first things that happens in the development of a culture of winning is the intolerance of losing.
A Peach Bowl bid assuaged the sting of the late season loss. West Virginia was matched up with Florida, who quickly became 17-1/2 point favorites. Few gave the Mountaineers a prayer. Gators coach Charley Pell and his players guaranteed a win. Those running sports book called the impending Florida victory “the lock of the year.”
That’s all the Mountaineers needed to hear.
Don Nehlen and his assistants developed the game plan. Coach Nehlen said in an interview with John Antonik of MSN, “We decided, hey, we have no chance so why don’t we just script it and stay on it.”
Quarterback Oliver Luck was quoted by Mr. Antonik, “We went into the game very relaxed—almost loosy-goosy…we felt like we had nothing to lose.”
West Virginia had absolutely nothing to lose, and they didn’t.
My wife had to work in Kentucky that New Year’s Eve day. It was a holiday for me, so I traveled with her. Sitting at a bar in Lexington with a few legal beverages, I watched the game on CBS. I could not believe what I saw.
There was a team from a school that was 2-9 just four seasons ago bringing it to Florida of the monster Southeastern Conference by opening it up on offense and gambling with nickel blitz packages on a defense led by the rather nasty Darryl Talley. The Gators’ offense was bruised and its defense was confused as West Virginia took a 16-0 lead into the lockers at the half.
The coach and his men knew the game wasn’t over. Florida could score a lot of points, so it was time to keep putting on the pressure.
And, press they did. The Mountaineers drove down the field at the beginning of the third to put Paul Woodside in field goal position. The kicker nailed it for a 19-0 lead.
That wasn’t enough. Florida quarterback Wayne Peace concluded his completely frustrating day with a three-and-out. West Virginia fielded the punt to the WVU 41. Running back Mickey Walczak led the charge to his final touchdown, turning the lock of the year into a 26-0 thrashing.
Florida avoided the shutout as its backup quarterback hit its backup tight end for a meaningless touchdown.
John Antonik quoted coach Nehlen in a 2005 interview as he described the 1981 Peach Bowl champions, “…as tough a bunch of guys as I’ve ever had.”
When you consider what was about to happen, that was saying a lot.
(Note: I had a real job in 1981, so I couldn’t rely solely on memory. Google helped me find stories from Mountaineer Sports Network which were invaluable in developing this piece.)