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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / 1988 West Virginia Mountaineers: Almost Heaven

1988 West Virginia Mountaineers: Almost Heaven

Publish Date: 10/05/2023
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

The Lambert Trophy is presented yearly to the best college football team in the East. Although teams have since consolidated into mega-conferences, its value has diminished considerably; back when college football teams were independent and stayed more in their region, this trophy held great significance. In 1988 West Virginia football won it with their unbeaten regular season; that trophy was a big deal then.

Don Nehlen became West Virginia’s head coach in 1980 and produced some solid teams. The 1988 squad, ranked 16th in the preseason AP poll, featured Major Harris, who boasted agility and an electric arm which would prove lethal even under modern spread offenses.

Harris excelled as an accurate passer, averaging 10.3 yards per pass while completing 57% of his throws. Calvin Phillips and Reggie Rembert were his primary receivers, while A.B. Brown and Undra Johnson contributed significantly. Harris led his team as the third-leading rusher while serving as the leading passer on offense as well.

West Virginia had future NFL stars Bo Orlando and Alvoid Mays on defense, along with cornerback Willie Edwards. But taking home the Lambert Trophy wouldn’t be easy–Syracuse had just completed an 11-0-1 campaign, Pitt was performing well, and Joe Paterno couldn’t be counted out of anything in East Coast football. Still, Nehlen had everything it would take to compete.

West Virginia opened their season by dominating three easy games against Bowling Green, UC-Fullerton and Maryland scoring 162 points combined in those three games, upping them into 11th in the polls and setting up an exciting match-up against #16 Pitt for “The Backyard Brawl” scheduled on September 24.

Harris made his presence felt early: On a third-and-25 play in the first quarter, he took off on a bootleg run, amassing 38 yards then after that electrifying play he tossed a 33-yard touchdown strike to Rembert for West Virginia to lead 10-7 at halftime. Brown later scored on an incredible 64-yard touchdown run as West Virginia cruised home with a 31-10 victory.

Wins At Virginia Tech (Frank Beamer had just begun his resurgence), East Carolina and Boston College–three easy victories were yet to come in 1988, running West Virginia’s record to 6-0.

West Virginia had long anticipated Penn State coming to town and they finally arrived, the Mountaineers would enter the contest ranked #7.

Penn State was not playing its best football this time. Coming into this matchup with only a 4-3 record, it seemed destined to fail. When your fans have been taken down so often by your opponent as West Virginia fans had done to by Penn State you take nothing for granted before this contest began, this should be your opportunity for redemption and victory!

Oddsmakers had a clearer perspective and installed West Virginia as a 13 1/2 point favorite, which proved too conservative. Harris made several remarkable plays during this game – throwing 12/20 for 230 yards without an interception but using his legs to dodge Lion defenders on option plays and run 73 yards to score on one!

As halftime approached, West Virginia led 27-8, and Nehlen was looking to end the game quickly. To do this, he called for a draw play involving running back Derrick Johnson, who ran it 55 yards to score and give West Virginia their highest-ever ranking at #4 in polls. They won 51-30 against Ohio University with an incredible second-half performance by Nehlen’s squad.

Harris led West Virginia’s offense to score 86 total points during wins over Cincinnati and Rutgers, setting off one more hurdle that stood between them and an undefeated season: Syracuse was 9-1 with their only defeat coming against Ohio State in September; should Syracuse win their season finale in Morgantown, they would capture another Lambert Trophy and West Virginia would lose out not only national title aspirations but even regional pride symbols like an unblemished record.

However, West Virginia fans needn’t have been alarmed; their defense and running game was up for the challenge of facing Syracuse. Brown ran for 103 yards, while Harris added 96. Johnson added 72 more. With West Virginia leading 14-3 at halftime, Edwards sealed it by intercepting Syracuse quarterback Todd Philcox for an interception that Edwards returned safely home; West Virginia then won 31-9 and completed their perfect regular season record.

Nehlen and his players set their sights on more than just winning the Lambert Trophy. As third in the polls behind Notre Dame and Miami, West Virginia would get its chance to play Notre Dame again in the Fiesta Bowl if West Virginia had won, they would leapfrog Miami into first place for national supremacy.

Notre Dame and Miami were on another level that year. West Virginia fell behind 26-6 before Harris injured his shoulder while throwing a third-quarter touchdown pass, ending any chance for a comeback and producing an unexpectedly close final score of 34-21. That score was much closer than the game actually was.

West Virginia finished #5 nationally and took home their inaugural Lambert Trophy, brought home to Morgantown. West Virginia has never been this good since, and that’s not to say the program has been bad because it hasn’t. 1988 was a year that will never be duplicated again in West Virginia. Nobody expected that team to make a run like that all the way to the National Championship game. It was a magical year to be a Mountaineer!

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