West Virginia’s first taste in a major bowl was bitter
After slamming North Carolina State, 61-0, to complete the 1953 season, West Virginia was invited to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. The record was 8-1-0 with the wins against major opponents coming over Pittsburgh, Penn State, Virginia Tech and the steamrolled Wolfpack. The lone loss came after the Mountaineers were 7-0-0 and that was a 20-14 defeat in Morgantown before 32,000 fans at old Mountaineer Field.
The Associated Press ranked the Mountaineers 10th in its final pre-bowl poll. The Sugar Bowl selected Coach Bobby Dodd’s quick-hitting Yellowjackets to be WVU’s opponent. The ‘Jackets had already played 11 games, going 8-2-1 versus their mostly Southeastern Conference foes. Dodd’s reputation had been furthered by his “Pony Backfield” of smallish running backs led by Leon “Stumpy” Hardeman, Billy Teas and Glenn Turner. Teas was the largest of the threesome at 5-foot-11 and 155 pounds.
The site of the Sugar Bowl was cavernous Tulane Stadium, a true bowl-shaped structure that held just over 80,000 people.
Tulane Stadium is gone now, having been demolished in 1979 — 26 years after many neutral observers would say the Mountaineers had been demolished by the quicksilver Yellowjackets.
The two teams were the complete opposites in terms of personnel.
Georgia Tech had starting linemen that weighed 170 pounds. West Virginia had running back Joe Marconi listed at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds as well as tackle Bruce Bosley (6-feet-2, 241), linebacker/guard Sam Huff (6-foot-1, 230) and lineman Jerry Cooper (6-foot-3, 270).
It would be a classic confrontation between a much smaller, much quicker and versatile group of Yellowjackets going against Art “Pappy” Lewis and his bludgeoning offense that sent Marconi, Bobby Moss and Tom Allman straight at the smaller defense they would encounter.
Fred Wyant was West Virginia’s quarterback. He would not want to remember his January 1, 1954 Sugar Bowl performance. Wyant lost two fumbles . . . and the Mountaineers had six turnovers against Georgia Tech’s two turnovers.
A crowd of over 71,000 was blessed with a sunny afternoon and reasonable temperatures as the Queen City tried to recover from its New Year’s Eve experiences along the French Quarter and the other hundreds of watering holes the city was famous for showing its tourists.
None of Georgia Tech’s three quarterbacks — Pepper Rodgers, 6-foot-3, 215-pound Wade Mitchell or Bill Brigman had passed for even 400 yards for the entire season of 11 games.
Dodd ran his ponies from the standard T-formation, but did have some option sweeps for his quarterbacks and Hardeman and Teas.
West Virginia ran between the tackles and behind its massive-for-day linemen.
Rodgers would have the game of his life — even including his days at Atlanta’s Brown High School where he helped the Johnny Rebs to the city championship.
Tech’s first possession ended with a nine-play, 67-yard drive bringing them a 7-0 lead when Rodgers threw to Sam Hensley. Rodgers also kicked the extra points. It appeared that West Virginia had quickly answered Tech’s solid first-punch when a 60-yard run went all the way to the end zone. But a holding penalty brought it back, and the Mountaineers couldn’t overcome the 15-yard infraction.
Rodgers led a 12-play, 68-yard scoring march that was completed when he found Jimmy Durham for his second TD pass. It was 14-0.
It became only 14-6 when Moss had 36 yards on three carries and Danny Williams scored from the five. The extra point was missed.
Teas lost a fumble deep in Tech territory. But WVU was plugged at the Yellowjacket 15 and stopped on downs.
Before the first half ended, Brigman and Rodgers combined to complete six passes on a 76-yard scoring drive that made it 20-6.
Speed and a premium battle plan formed by Dodd and his staff had a star spankled first half . . . and a 14-point lead.
When Wyant lost a fumble at his own eight, the Mountaineers held Rodgers and company out of the end zone, but Pepper did kick a field goal for a 23-6 lead.
Stumpy Hardeman galloped 34 yards and in no time had a 23-yard scoring romp to increase the ballooning Yellowjacket lead to 29-6.
West Virginia was not built to be a comeback team that could rally with quick-strike waterbugs or long scoring passes.
In the fourth quarter, the Mountaineers did get touchdowns from Marconi and Allman, but the ‘Jackets and their signature tearaway jerseys also managed two more touchdowns.
The final count was a 42-19 win by Georgia Tech, a team that had lived or bled with its stable of runners.
On that ill-fated-for-the-Mountaineers New Year’s Day in New Orleans, Rodgers, Mitchell, Brigman and company passed for a then Sugar Bowl record 268 yards.
Georgia Tech and Dodd were used to winning bowl games. It was their third straight success, and they did it with receivers Dave Davis and Hensley and lineman Larry Morris, Jimmy Morris, Franklin Brooks, Roger Frey, Orville Vereen and Ed Gossage.
West Virginia had never played before such a large crowd. When they defeated lightweights Waynesburg and Washington & Lee in Morgantown the crowds were 18,000 and 14,000 respectively. Even a one-point win at Penn State drew a crowd of 25,000 at Beaver Stadium. Playing in Bluefield against Virginia Tech, the Mountaineers won 12-7 before a crowd of 12,300 in a stadium that held only 10,000.
With a 7-0-0 record, a crowd of 32,000 came into old Mountaineer Field to see the WVU versus South Carolina game.
Pappy Lewis had only three assistant coaches. His best players were Bosley, Marconi, Moss, Huff, Williams, Allman, Wyant, Gene Lamone, Bob Orders, Jack Stone and the Starkeys.
West Virginia lacked speed. Dodd knew the Mountaineer weaknesses. And even though his teams had never relied much on throwing the ball, he left little doubt that his offense based on quickness and guile was more effective than West Virginia’s as the Mountaineers departed from the Crescent City with a bitter taste of “what might have been” in their mouths.