Mountaineers reach for new heights

January 01, 1994|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS -- Their coach is vehement about the issue, as are their fans. Among West Virginia's players, however, there's a palpable sense of humility that is linked to their position in the polls when this season began.

If the Mountaineers can beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl tonight at the Superdome, they'll finish 12-0, complete the first perfect record in their 103-year football history and put an exclamation point on their bid for a national championship. It will also cause them to take time to reflect on how far they have come since August.

West Virginia's 12-game win streak is the longest in the nation, but it began with a victory over Louisiana Tech at the end of a disappointing 1992 campaign.

The Mountaineers underachieved their way to a 5-4-2 record, and as crazy as it sounds now, in August Maryland received more attention in the Associated Press preseason poll than West Virginia. Among teams receiving Top 25 votes, the Terps, who would finish 2-9, received five points and in effect were ranked No. 47 among the 106 Division I-A teams. The Mountaineers got three points, the 49th-highest total.

Only coach Don Nehlen and his players can appreciate how hard it is to start that low in the voters' consciousness and climb this close to a national title.

"The reason we're not ranked higher than we are [No. 2 with the coaches, No. 3 in the AP and coalition polls] is because we weren't successful last year," said strong safety Mike Collins, one of the leaders of a small, energetic defense. "If we had won the games we should have last year, maybe we'd be playing in the 1-2 game right now."

Asked the difference between going 5-4-2 in 1992 and 11-0 in '93, Nehlen said, "Do you want me to be honest? Luck."

"In my opinion, we were just as good last year," Nehlen said. "The difference this year is that we've been injury-free and had the ball bounce the right way."

To be sure, the Mountaineers had fortune on their side in early October, when they beat Virginia Tech by one point and Louisville by two on successive Saturdays; and again at the close of the regular season, when they edged Miami and Boston College by 17-14 scores.

The players, however, look inside and see other intangibles. Quarterback Jake Kelchner, who finally began to realize the potential he showed as a high school All-American five years ago, said the difference between 1992 and '93 was him stepping forward as a leader. A few feet away, Mike Baker nodded his head, but said he and the other wide receivers have also done more.

It's a team without a star of the magnitude of Major Harris, who five years ago led West Virginia into a national championship showdown with Notre Dame. Nearly everyone who has been asked to contribute, however, has.

Nehlen said they've been injury-free, but he lost Jon Jones, his top rusher, in the opening game, and Kelchner missed time with a severe hamstring pull. Sophomore Robert Walker replaced Jones and set a school rushing record and scored the touchdown that beat Miami. A week later at Boston College, Darren Studstill came on for Kelchner and orchestrated two fourth-quarter touchdown drives and another emotional win.

"The '88 team certainly had a great player in Harris, and maybe it had more depth than this one, but it wasn't quite as close as this team is," Nehlen said. "These guys don't care about who gets the credit."

At times, the Mountaineers' quest for respect has left them perplexed. Those who would downplay West Virginia's win at Boston College because it came a week after the Eagles won at Notre Dame are conveniently overlooking the fact that the Mountaineers were beating Miami the same day.

Florida is a 6 1/2 -point favorite over West Virginia, but the Gators' critics are also plentiful. Coach Steve Spurrier's team won the right to play here by beating Alabama in the Southeastern Conference title game, but in the South they're regarded as the third-best team in the SEC.

The Gators (10-2) lost to undefeated Auburn, which is on probation and ranked No. 5 by AP. But the No. 8 Gators don't understand why they're behind No. 6 Tennessee, a team they beat. The Volunteers tied Alabama, but at the time the Crimson Tide had quarterback Jay Barker and All-American cornerback Antonio Langham, neither of whom played in the SEC title game.

"I'm about to go off," offensive guard Jim Watson said when asked about the polls. "I don't see how Tennessee's ranked above us. I guess the only way we can prove that were a national powerhouse is to beat West Virginia."

I= At the 1994 Sugar Bowl, the quest for respect never ends.

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