MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — There comes a time when every growing college football program announces its arrival on the scene.
For Don Nehlen, it was a trip to Oklahoma in 1982 when he took his West Virginia team into Norman, Oklahoma, and beat the Sooners, 41-27, to announce to the world that his team had arrived.
For Rich Rodriguez, it was an October night when he announced to the world that his team would be one to reckon with for some time when his unranked Mountaineers upset Virginia Tech, 28-7.
For Bill Stewart, it was the Fiesta Bowl after he took over as interim coach when his Mountaineers shook off that seismic collapse against Pitt and beat Oklahoma, announcing to the world that he would — and could — win at West Virginia.
For Dana Holgorsen, it was an Orange Bowl annihilation of Clemson, 70-33, that told the world he would spring a great offense upon it.
And now there’s Neal Brown, who believes his team made its announcement on Saturday afternoon before a crowd of friends and family in Mountaineer Field, defining themselves via a less-than-well-deserved but more than highly appreciated 27-21 victory over Baylor.
He called it “a program win”. He inferred it was a defining win.
It wasn’t built on talent. It was built on character. It came following that difficult loss a week earlier at Oklahoma State, a loss that easily could have been a win, and Brown knows it will serve to stoke the fires within the program, heating up confidence, giving players the warm glow of self-respect.
They haven’t arrived at the ultimate destination. In fact, they are a long way from it, but in a changing Big 12 where the power seems to be eroding from the top down, it may be the starting point in changing the football destiny of the Mountaineers.
This win was improbable, considering that WVU did not play well, yet found a way to survive.
It took a goal line stand. It took three fourth down conversions. It took overcoming 12 penalties. It took playing without starters.
But mostly it took heroic efforts.
Darius Stills, the preseason Big 12 player of the year who will surely be the defensive player of the week in the conference and perhaps nationailly, harassed Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer for four hours. getting 2.5 sacks, 3.5 tackles for a loss and spending more time in the Baylor backfield than the referee.
“After the game he was spent,” Neal Brown said.
“I don’t think I ever played a football game that was that long before,” Stills admitted.
Then there was Tony Fields, the middle linebacker, who finished with 10 tackles to lead WVU for the third straight game in that department.
“When he went into the transfer portal (from Arizona)we needed a playmaker. I call them train stoppers,” Brown said, meaning someone who can stop a runaway train. “I told Tony we needed a train stopper, someone who when things are going bad can answer the call of adversity.”
And that is what he got.
There Tykee Smith, the safety, saving the game with an interception when Brewer tried to go for it all on first down in the second overtime.
How do you describe this interception? Well, if you saw Gary Jennings catch of Will Grier’s pass to win a game for WVU two years ago, somehow pulling in the 33-yard pass at the back of the end zone in stride while getting one foot down, well, you saw that catch.
They were the same.
“We kind of knew they would try to hit on that first play,” Smith admitted after the game. “We kind of figured they would try to take another shot after they had done it (to get even) in the first overtime. They had momentum.”
And then there was Leddie Brown, who missed his third straight 100-yard game by seven yards on 27 grueling carries, including two touchdowns, one in which he somehow managed to reach out and get the ball across the goal line and the last one, the game winner, going right through the middle standing up.
“I was just happy, happy for my team,” Brown said of that last, deciding touchdown that would make WVU 2-1. “They depended on me a lot and I was happy I could do that for the team.”
West Virginia came out and looked like Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packer dynasty as it went down the field on a 15-play, 70-yard drive to open the game, but it soon melted into a fumbling, fouling, bumbling group of misfits as Baylor tied the game at 7-7.
“We figured out a way, in the first half and in the first two drives of the second half, to get in our own way about as well as you can possibly do it,” Brown said. “It could be procedure penalties, it could be dropped passes, it could be poor passes, it could be falling off our blocks or bad play calls. It could be all of the above. It went about as bad as it could go”
But there was a change in the second half as they retook the lead.
“Not only in our scoring drives, but we figured out where we got some movement, and we figured out ways and had some guys get really unselfish, and we were able to move the ball. We had a big scoring drive, then we were able to put it in the end zone twice in overtime,” Brown said.
That they could win in overtime after Baylor had tied the game with just 1:19 left was part of the entire statement made on this day, a day that neither Brown nor his players will ever forget.