by Emmet Mahon
Photo courtesy of ESPN.
During the pinnacle of eastern independent college football, one of the longest running and passionate series was between the West Virginia Mountaineers and the Penn State Nittany Lions. Over the course of 88 years, the two teams played each other 59 times with Penn State leading the rivalry 48-9-2. The first tilt occurred in State College on October 15, 1904, with a 34-0 victory for the Nittany Lions. The last game between the two occurred on October 24, 1992, also a win for Penn State, 40-26. Penn State Head Coach James Franklin observed that none of the players in this week’s game were even born at the time of that final game in Morgantown. Their parents were more than likely teenagers. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. When hostilities resume this season, fondness will be the least of the emotions on display.
As the record indicates, Penn State has dominated these match ups. They won the first five games, all played in State College, by a combined score of 103-0. A tie at Yankee Stadium snapped the string in 1909, which preceded a pause between the two universities until 1923 when West Virginia captured their first win, 14-0, the first home game for the Mountaineers. The longest winning streak belongs to Penn State at 25 wins during a 27-0-1 stretch. A 14-14 tie in Morgantown in 1958 being the only year Penn State did not prevail. Penn State has won the last four games in the series.
While the series statistics appear to be one sided, fans of both teams have had the opportunity to
cheer for well-known and extraordinary players. Penn State has had the fortune to have greats like Rosey Grier, Dave Robinson, Lenny Moore, Jack Ham, Matt Millen, and Mike Muchchak all participate in games against West Virginia. Mountaineer fans witnessed performances by legends Sam Huff, Chuck Howley, Darryl Talley, and Major Harris. Quarterback Jeff Hostetler participated in the rivalry from both sidelines.
With the past as prologue, here are notable victories for both universities.
October 15, 1904 @ State College, PA, Penn State 34-0
You never forget your first. This was the first game between West Virginia and Penn State. Both
coaches, Anthony Chez of West Virginia and Tom Fennell of Penn State, were in their first
seasons with their respective teams. West Virginia entered the contest at 3-0, Penn State at 1-2.
The Mountaineers would finish the season with a mark of 6-3, while Penn State would post a 6-4
record. There are no statistics available for this contest.
November 14, 1925 @ Morgantown, WV, West Virginia 14-0
This game provided another first, a Mountaineer victory. West Virginia’s stout defense locked down the visiting Nittany Lions. Penn State was able to scrape out 102 yards rushing between four running backs, led by August “Mike” Michalske, who carried thirteen times for 30 yards. G.R. Green did not fare much better with eleven rushes for 29 yards and added three competitions on four attempts for 20 yards. The Mountaineers relied heavily on the ground game with Pete Barnum rushing 28 times for 96 yards and Albert Glenn going for 20 carries for 74 yards. He also caught both of Francis Foley’s completions for 27 yards.
October 27, 1973 @ State College, PA, Penn State 62-14
The Something for Joey game. The terminally ill little brother of star running back John Cappelletti, Joey, made a request of his brother before the contest against West Virginia. He asked him to score “three, no, four” touchdowns. John obliged while carrying the ball for 130 yards. This was the game that put Cappelletti on sportswriter’s radar, eventually resulting in his Heisman Trophy selection that winter. Bob Nagel rushed eight times for 98 yards and a touchdown. Chuck Heard only had one reception on the day, but it was good for 76 yards and a touchdown.
The 62-14 shellacking was the largest margin of victory between the two clubs. Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions would eventually finish the season with a 12-0 record, a 16-9 Orange Bowl defeat of LSU, and #5 in the final rankings. The team was not star driven. Aside from Cappelletti, the most recognizable name was defensive lineman Mike Hartenstine. After their defeat, Bobby Bowden’s West Virginia team limped to a 6-5 record. Bowden would spend two more seasons in Morgantown before his Hall of Fame career at Florida State.
October 23, 1982 @ Morgantown, WV, Penn State 24-0
Two weeks prior to this game, #4 Alabama throttled then #3 Penn State 42-21. In need of righting their season, Joe Paterno’s team took on Don Nehlen’s boys. A balanced attack carried the day for the now ranked #9 Penn State. The attack was led by Curt Warner’s 82 yards on 13 carries, which was supplemented by Skeeter Nichols 10 rushes for 75 yards and a touchdown. Todd Blackledge spread passes around with six Nittany Lions making catches that day. They were led by Gregg Garrity’s three receptions for forty-two yards and Kenny Jackson adding two catches for 34 yards. Former teammate Jeff Hostetler managed to throw for 250 yards but threw two interceptions. Penn State built on the momentum of this game throughout the remainder of the season, culminating in a 27-23 Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia and their first official national championship. West Virginia would finish 9-3 and ranked 13th.
Notable players in this game included DL Greg Gattuso, LB Scott Radecic, DB Michael Zordich, and K Massimo Manca for the Nittany Lions. The Mountaineers roster included Hostettler’s backup Kevin White and FB Ron Wolfley.
October 27, 1984 @Morgantown, WV, West Virginia 17-14
On this day, West Virginia finally put an end to the long losing streak. Coach Nehlen employed a
little ground and pound, a little effective passing, and a tenacious defense in front of 64,879
delirious fans to end 28 years of misery. The backfield combination of John Gay and Ron Wolfley posted 128 yards rushing and one touchdown. Kevin White protected the football with 10 of his 15 passes completed for 124 yards. Penn State’s Steve Smith had a nice game, rushing with five attempts for 50 yards and a touchdown, but his costly third quarter fumble led to West Virginia’s deciding score. With less than a minute on the play clock and action still occurring, overjoyed Mountaineer fans began storming the field.
Neither team’s season ended in spectacular fashion. Nehlen’s team ended with a record of 8-4 and a final ranking of 18th. Paterno’s Nittany Lions staggered to a 6-5 finish and a 19th place ranking. The most prominent name for West Virginia was a defensive back named Rich Rodriguez. He would have a more significant contributions to the Mountaineer program later. Notable names from this game for Penn State included RB D.J. Dozier, OL Chris Conlin, DL Tim Johnson, and LB Shane Conlin.
October 29, 1988, @Morgantown, WV, West Virginia 51-30
Arguably West Virginia’s best team scored the most points ever on a Joe Paterno coached team and tallied their most lopsided win of the series. Don Nehlen’s Mountaineers entered the contest with a 7-0 record and having scored a staggering 304 points. The 5-2 Nittany Lions stood little chance to prevail. By that point in the season, quarterback Major Harris was already a serious Heisman Trophy candidate and his performance that day only enhanced his candidacy. Harris connected with Calvin Phillips for a 49-yard touchdown and one to Reggie Rembart for a 40-yard score. In total, he went 12-20 in passing attempts, totaling 230 yards. He did not throw an interception and added 58 yards rushing. Running backs Undra Johnson and Anthony “A.B.” Brown both topped 100 yards, with 105 and 103, respectively. Johnson gashed the Penn State defense with a 55-yard touchdown and Eugene Napoleon surpassed that with a 69-scoring dash of his own.
In addition to the stars on the scoresheet, West Virginia featured recognizable players in the form
LB Renaldo Turnbull, DB Bo Orlando, K Charlie Bauman, and LB Chris Hearing, who would go on to coach Mount Lebanon High School to over 100 wins and a WPIAL title before college coaching stints with Pittsburgh and Wisconsin. Familiar names from that Penn State roster include RB Gary Brown, RB Leroy Thompson, WR O.J. McDuffie, OL Steven Wisniewski, LB Andre Collins, and WR and future Assistant Coach Terry Smith.
This renewal of hostilities is only for this season and next with no apparent plans for an extension. Penn State is a prohibitive favorite, but with first games and grudge games, there is no telling what the outcome will be.
Notes: Mountaineer Field in Morgantown will host the 2024 game on August 31st. Saturday’s game will air on NBC starting at 7:30 P.M. Broadcasters for this game are Noah Eagle on play-by-play, color analyst Todd Blackledge and sideline reporter Kathryn Tappen. The fans will be in a “helmet stripe” formation where most of the stadium is in all white, while fans aligned with midfield will dress in blue, matching Penn State’s iconic helmets.
Emmet Mahon can be reached at email@example.com