As we continue on through our journey into the darkest of the dark and the lowest of the low, I find myself thinking “This article will be quick. I don’t have a lot to say about the topic.” and yet, somehow, I find the words come pouring out. I’m assuming this is from a place that I’ve pushed down and repressed, and these articles give them the opportunity to escape.
Today’s topic is no different. We’re talking about West Virginia’s undefeated regular season in 1993 - when I was just 7 years old. I wasn’t even aware that I had this much to say about a season that I barely remember, so I can’t even imagine the angst this topic causes the older crowd.
I’m sorry in advance.
Don Nehlen’s West Virginia Mountaineers entered the 1993 season without much fanfare. After Major Harris and the nucleus of the 1988-89 Fiesta Bowl squad moved on from the program, the Mountaineers cratered back to mediocrity - going 4-7, 6-5, and 5-4-2 in 1990 through 1992. With a giant question mark lingering over the starting quarterback role due to Nehlen deciding to rotate his two senior signal callers each game, there was little reason for anyone outside the state of West Virginia to give the Mountaineers any chance that season.
The Mountaineers opened the season in Morgantown with a 48-6 rout of the Eastern Michigan Eagles, in a game that saw Notre Dame transfer Jake Kelchner take the reins at quarterback. Kelchner’s performance was good enough to earn him the starting role against the Maryland Terrapins after an early bye week, where he completed 15 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-37 game that relied on a Harold Kidd interception to secure the win for the Mountaineers. West Virginia following that up by blowing past the Missouri Tigers in Morgantown in week four, 35-3, thanks to a three touchdown performance from Kelchner.
The Mountaineers found themselves ranked No. 25 after the Missouri win and were gaining momentum, but it nearly came to a screeching halt the following week. Nehlen’s squad survived five turnovers to win its Big East opener in week five, 14-13, over the Virginia Tech Hokies but only after Hokies kicker Ryan Williams missed a potentially game-winning 44-yard field goal. That game was followed by another close one, when the now No. 24 ranked Mountaineers narrowly escaped the 17th ranked Louisville Cardinals, 36-34, in a game that saw Darren Studstill throw his first touchdown of the year.
The Mountaineers continued to rise in the the rankings before going on a four game streak of destruction with wins over the Pittsburgh Panthers (42-21), Syracuse Orange (43-0), Rutgers Scarlet Knights (58-22) and Temple Owls (49-7). During that stretch, Nehlen continued to rotate through his quarterbacks, with Studstill getting a majority of the reps against Rutgers and Temple. West Virginia had surpassed all expectations with a 9-0 record midway through November, and now found themselves inside the Top 10 at No. 9.
In one of the biggest games in West Virginia football history, the No. 4 Miami Hurricanes came to town looking to end the Mountaineers’ national championship dreams. Led by Warren Sapp and Ray Lewis on defense, the Hurricanes offense had some trouble adjusting to the frigid temperatures and turned the ball over three times in the first half. Despite playing on Miami’s side of the field for most of the half, the Mountaineers still only managed to take a 3-0 lead into the locker room at the break.
Things picked up in the second half and the Hurricanes struck first, scoring a touchdown early in the third quarter for a 7-3 lead. The Mountaineers answered with a 13 play drive capped by a 1 yard TD pass to fullback Rodney Woodard on third and goal. West Virginia found themselves in a dog fight as night fell on Morgantown.
A short run by the ‘Canes with 12 minutes remaining gave them the lead once again at 14-10. West Virginia’s offense wasn’t able to get anything going on the ensuing possession, but the stout defense held Miami to another punt. With time winding down, Mike Baker nearly broke his return, setting up Jake Kelchner and the WVU offense with prime field position at the Miami 31.
Just moments later, sophomore running back Robert Walker made one cut, then another before racing 19 yards untouched down the left sideline and into the end zone with 6:19 left to give West Virginia the lead, sending the entire stadium into pandemonium. The dream was still alive.
The Mountaineers wrapped up the regular season in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, ranked No. 5 against the No. 11 ranked Boston College Eagles. West Virginia carried a 3-0 lead into the half, despite Tom Coughlin’s Eagles controlling the time of possession at a 2-to-1 ratio. Early in the second half, Kelchner exited the game with an arm injury, allowing Studstill to take the reins.
The Eagles quickly scored two touchdowns to take a 14-3 lead with the fourth quarter beginning to tick away. Studstill answered the call, and engineered a drive that allowed Rodney Woodard to sneak in from the 6 yard line. With the Mountaineers down 14-9, Boston College chewed 5 minutes off the clock to set up a game-sealing field goal, but ended up fumbling the ball with just over two minutes remaining in the game. West Virginia recovered and Studstill led the game winning drive, capped off by a 24-yard touchdown pass to Ed Hill to secure the Mountaineers’ second undefeated season in six years.
Despite the undefeated season, West Virginia found themselves on the outside looking in for an outright National Championship when the Bowl Coalition decided to match an 11-1 Florida State Seminoles team against the unbeaten Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Orange Bowl. The Mountaineers were instead scheduled to play the Texas A&M Aggies in the Cotton Bowl, but decided to take a better payday for a matchup against No. 8 Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl for a possible share of the championship.
The game emanated the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana, and saw Jake Kelchner get the Mountaineers out to a 7-0 lead over the Gators on a 32 yard pass to Jay Kearney on the first drive of the game. The Gators evened the score at 7-7 to end the first quarter, and the Mountaineers were forced to punt on their second and third drives. Kelchner would give way to Studstill after the West Virginia defense recovered a Gator fumble at Florida’s 18-yard line. On the first two plays of the drive, Robert Walker ripped off a nine yard run to the left side and fullback Jimmy Freeman powered through the middle to get a first down. It looked as if the Mountaineer offense were about to get things going again.
And then this happened...
Monty Grow’s booming hit was clean - a point that many Mountaineer fans still argue against to this day - and served as the turning point in the game. Studstill was so rattled from the blow that he couldn’t figure out how to reconnect his chinstrap to his helmet, and had to burn a timeout so the equipment staff could fix his helmet while he took a standing eight count. A play later, Grow hit Studstill one more time, causing an errant pass right into the hands of Lawrence Wright. Wright returned the ball 52 yards for the touchdown, and the rout was on.
Florida would go on to a 41-7 blowout win, and the Mountaineers would start the new year with nothing to show for another undefeated season.