Mostly unknowns drove WVU to an unbeaten season
Coach Don Nehlen could barely decide on a starting quarterback.
Legitimate stars were gone from the previous year’s team.
There was a full Big East schedule to be negotiated.
And where were the playmakers any team needs to be successful?
It was 1993 and West Virginia had many positions straining to be filled . . . filled by those whose fame and contributions were waiting in the future.
Everywhere Nehlen looked there was competition for playing time and the coach’s attention.
Before the seven games of the Big East could be attempted there would be skirmishes against Maryland and Virginia Tech. Once the conference was in view there would be Louisville, Miami and Boston College.
Who were going to be Nehlen’s cornerstones?
Rich Braham was a offensive lineman with considerable worth and talent. Robert Walker rose to the top of the running back list. Todd Sauerbrun was an All-America punter. But the rest of the starters and frontline players would have to introduce themselves as the season swung into motion.
Even in the season-opening rout of Eastern Michigan, quarterbacks Jake Kelchner and Darren Studstill had equal roles.
When the Mountaineers survived a scant five-point ending in College Park against Maryland, people on the sidelines were beginning to recognize linemen Chris Klick, Jim LeBlanc, Tom Robsock, and Dale Williams.
Next came Missouri and the still learning defense had shown linebackers Tim Brown, Wes Richardson and Darrick Wiley.
Entering the Virginia Tech game, the Mountaineers were 4-0 and relied from the beginning on Walker’s legs and the coming of age of players such as David Mayfield, Tommy Orr, Aaron Beasley, Harold Kidd, Mike Collins and Vann Washington in the secondary.
The Mountaineers suffered through five turnovers in the Virginia Tech game . . . yet they survived in winning, 14-13.
The national polls made mention of the undefeated team.
Walker ran for three touchdowns when Louisville was outscored, 36-34, in Morgantown.
Although Kelchner and Studstill were as well-known for their running exploits, receivers Jay Kearney, Eddie Hill, Mike Baker, Zach Abraham and Rashaan Vanterpol became recognized on radio announcer Jack Fleming’s radio broadcasts.
None of the country’s pundits or talking heads were heaping too much praise or making too many predictions of guaranteed glories for the Mountaineers.
Pittsburgh was chased back to its Oakland campus with a 42-21 losing knot in its tail. And West Virginia was 6-0 and halfway through its schedule.
Ahead only 7-0 at the half of the Syracuse game, Walker, running back Jim Freeman, tight end Nate Rine pumped another 36 points on to the Carrier Dome scoreboard after the intermission.
The Scarlet Knights of Rutgers were a little red-faced after the 58-22 pasting they took at Mountaineer Field.
Matt Tafffoni, Charles Emanuel, Scott Gaskins, Barry Hawkins and Steve Perkins of the defense were all entrenched as favorites of Fleming as he began to notice an unbeaten season could hinge on the Miami game that was fast approaching on November 20.
Temple was blistered, 49-7, as defender Keith Jones, punt returner Mike Logan and running back Rodney Woodard helped bring the poll-worthy record to 10-0.
Miami and its seasons-long history of high finishes in the polls was set to come to Morgantown. The afternoon when the Hurricanes came out to defuse West Virginia’s dynamite was very cold with a nasty wind in the faces of the south Floridians. It was not Chamber of Commerce weather in Coral Gables, where the Miami campus is located. It was Jack Frost nipping at more than your nose, toes and any exposed skin.
A record crowd of 70,222 visited Mountaineer Field. Most of them yelled their lungs into near exhaustion when a field goal lifted West Virginia to a 17-14 win and a even loftier place in the rankings.
Only Boston College remained. On the last Friday in November, it seemed WVU had saved its most mundane offensive performance for last. The Eagles led by 11 points with only 13 minutes remaining.
But Kelchner ignited a latent points parade . . . and a 17-14 win preserved the undefeated status and had WVU being groomed for a possible national championship game in one of the bowls.
Several opponents were being considered. After a possible match with Texas A&M was discarded, the administrative minds in collaboration with the television networks decided it would be Florida versus the Mountaineers in the Sugar Bowl.
Kelchner and his mates scored first and Florida couldn’t make a first down with its first series of ploys.
The game changed completely when WVU was called for a 15-yard penalty that extended a Florida drive. The galloping Gators scored the game’s last 41 points to capsize West Virginia’s championship ambitions.
But a team with very few recognizable faces when the season began had gone 11-0 with close wins over Virginia Tech and Miami as its beacons. And later Braham, Logan, Beasley, Sauerbrun and Studstill all had their seasons in the NFL to further introduce their skills.