The Lambert Trophy is the award given annually to the best college football team in the East. Today, with teams folded into mega-conferences, it’s lost a lot of its weight. But in the day when the major Eastern college football teams were all independent, yet played each other annually, it was a big deal. The trophy had never found its way to Morgantown, WVA. That is, until the 1988 West Virginia football team rolled off an unbeaten regular season and finally won it.
Don Nehlen had arrived in West Virginia as the head coach in 1980 and produced some good teams. The 1988 team had reasonably high expectations, ranked #16 in the preseason AP poll. WVA returned sophomore quarterback Major Harris, an electrifying combination of agility and an electric arm that would be even more lethal in today’s modern spread offenses.
Harris was a big-play passer, and averaged a sparkling 10.3 yards-per-pass, while completing a respectable 57 percent of his throws. His top receivers were Calvin Phillips and Reggie Rembert. Harris was also the third-leading rusher on the team, while A.B. Brown and Undra Johnson had good years carrying the rest of the running load.
On the defensive side, West Virginia had future pros in Bo Orlando and Alvoid Mays in the defensive back, along with a good cornerback in Willie Edwards. The road to the Lambert Trophy wouldn’t be easy—Syracuse was coming off an 11-0-1 season, Pitt was good, and while Penn State seemed down, no one in the East would ever count out Joe Paterno. But Nehlen had the horses to compete.
West Virginia opened with three easy games and blasted Bowling Green, UC-Fullerton and Maryland, scoring a combined 162 points in the process. The Mountaineers nudged to #11 in the polls and it set up a visit to #16 Pitt in the “The Backyard Brawl” on the night of September 24.
Harris made his mark on the game early—on 3rd-and-25 in the first quarter, he took off on a bootleg and gained 38 yards. Harris punctuated that drive with a 33-yard touchdown strike to Rembert, and West Virginia led 10-7 in the second half. Brown then broke off a 64-yard touchdown run, the Mountaineers took over the fourth quarter and won 31-10.
Another easy schedule stretch remained, starting with wins at Virginia Tech (Frank Beamer was just beginning a rebuilding process that would take five years to bear fruit), at East Carolina and at home against Boston College, another Eastern team that’s had its moments, but was down in 1988.
West Virginia was ranked #7 on October 29 and the game the entire state had waited for was at hand—Penn State was coming to town.
This was not a good Nittany Lion team. They were 4-3 coming in, and would end up being the first Joe Paterno-coached team to miss a bowl game. But when you’ve beaten down as many times as the loyal fans of West Virginia had by Penn State, the circumstances don’t matter. This is the game you want to win.
Oddsmakers took a clearer view and installed WVA as a 13 ½ point favorite. That proved to be too conservative. Harris threw the ball well, going 12/20 for 230 yards and no interceptions, but his memorable play came with his legs. After running the wrong way on an option play, he had to bail himself out and did so by juking five different Lion defenders and running 73 yards for a touchdown.
The score was 27-8 as the game got ready for halftime and Nehlen was ready to kill the clock. He called for a draw play to Johnson. The running back took it 55 yards to the house and if the rout wasn’t already on, it was now in full throttle. The game ended 51-30 and West Virginia climbed to #4 in the national polls.
Harris lead the offense to a combined 86 points in wins over Cincinnati and Rutgers. There was one more hurdle in the way of an undefeated season and it was a big one—Syracuse was 9-1, their only loss coming in September to Ohio State. If the Orange won the finale in Morgantown, they would win another Lambert Trophy. And this tremendous season of West Virginia would go down the tubes, not only without a national title shot, but without even the symbol of regional pride.
West Virginia fans needn’t have worried. The defense was ready to play and the running game was consistent. Brown ran for 103 yards, Harris had 96 and Johnson tacked on 72 more. With a 14-3 lead in the second half, Edwards sealed the deal by intercepting Syracuse quarterback Todd Philcox, taking it the house and the party could start. West Virginia won 31-9 and completed their perfect regular season.
Nehlen and his kids now had their eyes on bigger game than the Lambert Trophy. They were ranked #3, trailing only Notre Dame and Miami in the polls. Because the two teams had already played each other—with ND winning—it was West Virginia that would get their chance to play the Irish in the Fiesta Bowl. If the Mountaineers won, they would certainly leapfrog the Hurricanes and win the national championship.
That was too much to ask. Notre Dame and Miami were on a different level then the rest of college football in 1988. West Virginia fell behind 26-6 and after Harris threw a third-quarter touchdown pass, he injured his shoulder. Any faint hope of a comeback was over and the final score was a deceptively close 34-21.
The 1988 West Virginia football team still finished #5 in the country. And they had finally brought the Lambert Trophy to Morgantown.