After their undefeated regular season and Lambert Trophy year of 1988, Don Nehlen’s West Virginia program had slipped back to mediocrity. The 1990-92 seasons produced a record of 15-16-2. There was no sign that the 1993 West Virginia football season would be a special one. But that’s exactly how it turned out, as the Mountaineers had another undefeated regular season and won the first authentic Big East football title.
The Big East had come into existence as a football conference two years earlier and officially awarded its league championship to national powerhouse Miami. But that was a mostly superficial designation, as scheduling commitments meant that 1993 would be the first time the eight-team league could play a true round-robin schedule. With Miami as the program that defined college football as a whole for the previous decade, there was no doubting who the favorite was.
West Virginia had quarterback uncertainty and Nehlen opted for a rotation between Jake Kelchner and Darren Studstill. Kelchner’s final numbers of 63% completion rate and 9.7 yards-per-attempt would have been the conference’s best, but he didn’t attempt enough passes to officially qualify. The Mountaineers didn’t throw the football a lot, but when they did, they made it count—Jay Kearney, who led the team with 750 receiving yards, averaged better than 25 a pop. Mike Baker and Ed Hill were each good for better than 17 yards-per-catch.
There was less question about who the featured running back was. Robert Walker broke a 24-year-old school rushing record in 1993, running for 1,250 yards. He ran behind a line that featured second-team All-American offensive tackle Rich Braham.
Even knowing that in hindsight, the ‘93 Mountaineers weren’t as talent-laden as the 1988 team had been, nor did any sort of expectations accompany this year’s team into the season. West Virginia was unranked when the 1993 campaign began.
Three easy non-conference wins opened the year and got WVA into the Top 25. But Eastern Michigan, Maryland and Missouri were all bad teams, so public perception really didn’t change, in spite of the offense scoring 125 points in the three games.
A home date with Virginia Tech opened Big East play and the result was a 14-13 win. This is a win that’s more impressive in hindsight than it was in the moment. The Hokies had been a mostly non-descript program, but ‘93 was their breakout year under Frank Beamer and started a string of bowl trips that hasn’t stopped.
Louisville was the next visitor to Morgantown. The Cards were an independent at this time, so this was the final non-conference game of the year. Louisville was also good—they had gone to the Fiesta Bowl two years earlier, were coached by Howard Schnellenberger and had Jeff Brohm, the current Purdue coach, at quarterback. The game was a shootout, but West Virginia pulled it out, 36-34 and moved up to #18 in the polls.
The Backyard Brawl against Pitt awaited, but even though the Panthers had a future NFL Hall of Famer named Curtis Martin in the backfield, they weren’t very good. WVA coasted to a 42-21 win. They followed up with a 43-0 thrashing of Syracuse, a team that opened the year with high expectations, but ended up in mediocrity. The Mountaineer blowout of the Orange was symbolic of the swapping places that each program would do in terms of preseason expectation compared to actual results.
A 58-22 blasting of Rutgers pushed West Virginia into the Top 10. They blew out Temple, one of the worst programs in the country. At 9-0, the Mountaineers were firmly on the national radar and the two biggest games of the year were up—a home date with Miami, then a road trip to Boston College.
The Hurricanes were ranked #4 and after an early loss to Florida State, were hoping to get back into the national title picture. West Virginia outplayed Miami for the first half, but two trips inside the Hurricane five-yard line resulted in just a single field goal and the score was 3-0 at halftime. Miami took a 14-10 early in the fourth quarter and it looked like this would be one of those games that Mountaineer fans would look back on with regret.
Instead, Mike Baker broke a punt return and got his team in good position at the Miami 31. Walker then ripped off a 19-yard touchdown run to get the lead and the defense made it hold up. The 17-14 win moved the Mountaineers to #5 in the polls and had them in the national title conversation.
That national title picture had been considerably rattled the same day—Boston College stunned top-ranked Notre Dame in South Bend and threw everything into chaos. West Virginia and Nebraska were the only two undefeated teams, but most observers felt Florida State and ND were better. It seemed apparent early on that even if the Mountaineers closed the undefeated season, they would get the shaft when it came to bowl matchups.
There was still the matter of closing the season though and Kelchner was injured going into the BC game on Black Friday. The Mountaineers trailed 14-3 early in the fourth quarter. It looked like the national title hopes were going down the drain and that WVA would end up in a three-way tie for the first true Big East title with both the Hurricanes and Eagles.
Instead, the Mountaineers scored a touchdown and forced a turnover. Studstill drove the team into position and threw a perfect 24-yard scoring strike to Ed Hill. It was another come-from-behind 17-14 win.
West Virginia moved up to #3 in the polls, but once-beaten Florida State would get the chance at Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. The Mountaineers would have to settle for a Sugar Bowl bid and hope that beating Steve Spurrier’s Florida would impress enough people to at least get them a share of the national championship in the coaches’ poll. The AP writers’ poll was completely in the tank for Florida State and actually ranked the Seminoles #1, ahead of both unbeaten teams and the Notre Dame team they’d lost to.
When a healthy Kelchner led an early touchdown drive and gave West Virginia a 7-0 lead in the Sugar Bowl, it looked like they might be poised to make their case. But Studstill would come in, throw an interception and a Gator avalanche began. By the time it was over the final was 41-7. The championship dream was over and West Virginia ended the year at #7.
The 1993 campaign was still a special one in Morgantown. They had wildly exceeded all expectations, won two memorable games to close the regular season and would go down in history as the first true champion of the Big East.