Return to Sports

Is WVU set to scratch 5-year itch?

by Chris Errington


(September 3, 1998) MORGANTOWN -- Is it coincidence or is it a direct result of talent-laden recruiting classes?

No matter what, West Virginia University's propensity for posting national championship-caliber teams every five years is beginning to take its toll on its players.

"I'm tired of hearing about this five-year deal," Mountaineers wide receiver Shawn Foreman said. "My guess is that it's just a coincidence, nothing more."

"I don't put any faith into that kind of stuff," wide receiver David Saunders added. "Those were those years and this is this year. Everything is new."

If this were any year other than 1998, West Virginia's players wouldn't constantly be badgered with talk of another perfect season. But it is. And following 11-0 and national championship contention seasons in 1988 and 1993, coupled with the Mountaineers' highest preseason ranking in school history (No. 11) the comparisons are inevitable.

The pressure is starting to show.

"I'm aware of what people are saying and what they expect us to live up to," inside linebacker Barrett Green said. "I don't know if we can do what the '88 and '93 teams did, but I don't want to go down as the team that broke the streak."

For WVU to put together another undefeated season, it will need ingredients from both previous teams -- talent and luck.

The 1988 team had the talent.

With two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Major Harris at quarterback, an offensive line consisting of five fifth-year seniors and a stingy defense led by eventual NFL players Mike Fox, Renaldo Turnbull and Bo Orlando, contending for a national championship was a definite possibility.

ESPN analyst Beano Cook agreed, picking WVU to win the title in the preseason.

That Mountaineer team averaged nearly 43 points per game during the regular season, and won their 11 games by an average of 27.1 points. And that team had its share of top-notch opponents.

The Mountaineers blasted Penn State in mid-season before doing the same to 14th-ranked Pitt and 16th-ranked Syracuse in the final two weeks.

This year's squad appears to be the most talented since.

Running back Amos Zereoue is the Mountaineers' first legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, four seniors and a junior make up the offensive line and the past two Big East-leading receivers lead arguably the school's best receiving corps.

Defensively, WVU boasts Butkus Award candidate Gary Stills, second-team preseason All-American John Thornton and one of the fastest secondaries in school history.

"There's no doubt that we have talent here," Nehlen said. "We're thin, but we have some great players with our first unit. Offensively we should have a team to be reckoned with. Defensively we'll need to come together quickly."

Quicker, Thornton said, than you might think.

"This whole year depends on our first game," Thornton said of the Mountaineers clash with No. 1 Ohio State on Saturday. "It's a shame, but it's true."

The 1993 team had the luck.

Nehlen said that team had "the biggest heart of any team I've ever coached," and used a few key breaks to post its 11-0 season.

Quarterback Jake Kelchner emerged after leaving Notre Dame to be one of the nation's leading quarterbacks in passing efficiency and tailback Robert Walker came from nowhere to rush for 1,250 yards -- second-best to Zereoue's total last year.

But it was a series of close victories (14-13 over Virginia Tech, 36-34 over Louisville, 17-14 over Miami and 17-14 over Boston College) that really made the season possible.

This year's team knows it will need some similar breaks --namely against No. 1 Ohio State and Syracuse on Nov. 7.

"We know what kind of talent we've got, but every great team needs some breaks," senior center Eric de Groh said. "I just hope we get our share."

Contrary to his teammates' beliefs, de Groh was quick to point out that the Mountaineers' five-year itch goes a little deeper than mere coincidence.

He attributed it to big recruiting classes following the undefeated seasons maturing five years later into a senior-laden team.

"We went to the Sugar Bowl just before I got here and we had a huge recruiting class," de Groh said. "It just seems to work out to our advantage that way. Coach Nehlen said this year's our chance to make a national statement."