The 11 most memorable games of the West Virginia-Syracuse rivalry

ORLANDO, Fla. — Orlando’s Camping World Bowl is the site of the 61st meeting between West Virginia and Syracuse, and it promises to be the warmest venue at which the two foes have played. The series was contested every year from 1955-2012, and for many of those early years it was a rivalry on par with those against Pitt and Penn State.

Like any rivalry, it was bred from familiarity. Ben Schwartzwalder, Syracuse’s coach from 1949-73, was a WVU graduate who played for the Mountaineers from 1930-32. WVU coach Don Nehlen (1979-2000) and Syracuse coach Dick MacPherson (1981-90) were longtime friends who had worked together at Cincinnati.

Things started getting less familiar when Nehlen retired, and by the time the programs parted conferences in 2011, the matchup lost all its luster. The 10 most recent games in the series were decided by an average margin of 19.2 points.

Despite the 21st Century decline, there have been many great matchups between the Orange and Mountaineers over the years. Here are the 11 most memorable games:


The Mountaineers earned their first bowl invite in 11 years with a 28-27 upset of the heavily favored No. 9 Orangemen at Old Mountaineer Field. The win was West Virginia’s first against a ranked opponent in five years. The Sugar Bowl was so certain of a Syracuse victory that it invited the Orangemen before the game was even played.

Quarterback Allen McCune passed for 245 yards – then the second-highest total in program history – as WVU rallied from a 21-7 halftime deficit that sent most of the 14,000 fans to the exits early. Tight end Milt Clegg was his favorite target, shattering the single-game record book with eight receptions for 139 yards. But split end Bob Dunlevy was the hero, turning a 22-yard pass from McCune into a 50-yard touchdown reception 6:06 remaining to put the Mountaineers on top.

“If ever a more exciting game was played at the Stadium since it opened its gates 40 years ago, it escapes memory,” reported The Post’s Tony Constantine.

The excitement carried on after the gun. Many of the remaining fans rushed the field, and several reportedly got into it with Syracuse players who had scuffled with WVU players at the end of the game.

WVU was invited to the Liberty Bowl with the win.


Revenge was sweet for Syracuse, which pounded West Virginia behind a pair of future Hall of Famers.

Floyd Little rushed for 196 yards and four touchdowns on 30 carries, while Larry Csonka added 216 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries in Syracuse’s 41-19 win. It would not be the last time revenge played a role in the series.


West Virginia clinched the second nine-win season in school history with a 13-10 comeback win over the Orangemen at Syracuse’s Archbold Stadium. The Mountaineers trailed 10-0 at halftime.

Fullback Jim Braxton took an option pitch 55 yards for the go-ahead score in the third quarter. He finished the game with 107 yards on 15 carries, while tailback Bob Gresham ran for 102 yards on 31 carries. Both are in the WVU Athletics Hall of Fame.

The win put West Virginia in the Peach Bowl, marking the program’s first bowl appearance since the 1964 Liberty Bowl.


Well before Dana Holgorsen went for a game-winning two-point conversion on the road, Bobby Bowden did.

Playing in miserable conditions at Archbold Stadium – the box score noted 2 inches of snow and wind gusts of up to 30 mph – West Virginia rallied back from a 17-0 deficit behind 293 yards from quarterback Dan Kendra. The Mountaineers cut the deficit to 20-19 in the final minute, prompting Bowden to go for the 2-point conversion and the win.

Fullback Ron Lee was ruled short of the goal line on the play, but insisted he was in.

“I felt I was over and then they pushed me back,” Lee said afterwards.

Bowden only coached one more game for the Mountaineers — the 1975 Peach Bowl — before leaving for Florida State, perhaps intent on never coaching outdoors at Syracuse again.


After dropping four in a row to Syracuse, ’81 felt like West Virginia’s year. The Mountaineers had an 8-2 record going into their first trip to the Carrier Dome, while the Orangemen had little to play for at 3-6-1.

Alas, Oliver Luck threw four interceptions to mar a performance that included a school-record 34 completions and 360 passing yards. The third interception set the stage for Syracuse kicker Gary Anderson to sneak a go-ahead 44-yard field goal over the crossbar that eventually lifted the Orangemen to a 27-24 win.

Once again, a West Virginia player set a single-game record for receptions – this time, it was running back Mickey Walczak with 12 catches.

And once again a Syracuse running back had a great game. Joe Morris rushed for 168 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries, closing out his college career with 4,299 yards.


Yet again, a Syracuse-West Virginia game was decided on a two-point conversion in the waning seconds.

Michael Owens snuck inside the pylon on a pitch from Don McPherson to give the Orangemen a 32-31 lead. McPherson had just connected with tight end Pat Kelly for a 17-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds remaining to keep Syracuse’s hopes of an undefeated season alive. West Virginia had taken the lead on a 10-yard Undra Johnson touchdown run with 1:32 left.

The Orange finished 11-0 and earned a Sugar Bowl bid with their 22-point fourth quarter, but the game provided a glimpse of what was to come for WVU quarterback Major Harris. The freshman accounted for 266 total yards in the near-upset.


The most memorable game in Mountaineer Field history, period.

The Mountaineers picked off four Todd Philcox passes, including Willie Edwards’ 49-yard Pick-Six that set the tone for West Virginia’s 31-9 win. West Virginia clinched an 11-0 season and a date with Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship.

The scene after the game was more iconic than the game itself.  The Mountaineers came back onto the field from the locker room for a victory lap because none of the 60,000 fans in attendance had left.


The most controversial ending in series history.

With Syracuse driving late, quarterback Marvin Graves was hit out of bounds by West Virginia’s Tommy Orr – perhaps a tad late, but not enough to draw a flag. Incensed, Graves decided to chuck the ball off Orr’s helmet, precipitating a bench-clearing fracas between both teams. Graves didn’t draw so much as a personal foul for his role, merely getting penalized 5 yards for throwing the ball after the play.

Three West Virginia starters were ejected once ordered was restored, while only a backup Syracuse offensive lineman suffered the same fate.

“It’s a crime,” Nehlen said after the game. “I don’t think I’ve ever had one taken from me like that.”

Syracuse tight end Chris Gedney hauled in the go-ahead 17-yard touchdown pass with 51 seconds to go, putting the Orange up 20-17. Naturally, he caught it over the head of backup defensive back John Harper, who was in for the ejected Mike Collins.


West Virginia’s version of revenge somehow managed to outdo Syracuse’s old combo of Little and Csonka.

The Mountaineers rushed for 446 yards – 198 of which were gained by Robert Walker – as they handed Syracuse its worst home loss in a 43-0 drubbing. Nehlen wasn’t out for too much blood, though, taking a late knee near the goal line to keep the game from hitting 50-0.

Graves, the villain of ’92, was bottled up, completing 14 of 28 passes for 144 yards and gaining 16 yards on six carries.

West Virginia rolled to an 11-0 regular season before a 41-7 loss to Florida in the Sugar Bowl.


The series had swung back to Syracuse being the dominant team behind star quarterback Donovan McNabb, who was looking for his fourth consecutive win over the Mountaineers.

But Amos Zereoue zig-zagged his way to 189 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries and Marc Bulger connected with David Saunders for a go-ahead 43-yard touchdown pass with 3:04 remaining.

The stage was set for McNabb to launch a potential Heisman moment, but the drive stalled at the WVU 17 – coincidentally, the precise yard line from which Syracuse threw its winning touchdowns in 1987 and ’92.


The end of an era.

Though it was in the works for weeks prior, Nehlen announced his retirement immediately following an agonizing 31-27 loss to the Orange.

West Virginia had the game in hand, looking to run out the final four minutes after a 41-yard Avon Cobourne run put the Mountaineers in Syracuse territory. But Nehlen called for a pass on first down, and Syracuse cornerback Will Allen obliged by picking off Scott McBrien.

Syracuse marched 84 yards in 13 plays on the game-winning drive, which culminated with RJ Anderson’s 13-yard pass to Malik Campbell with 10 seconds left.

“It was a coaching error. The ball should have never been thrown,” Nehlen said. “Absolute stupidity.”

West Virginia finished 2-1 in its final three regular-season games, then snapped an eight-game bowl losing streak with a 49-38 win over Ole Miss in the Music City Bowl to cap Nehlen’s 21-year WVU career at 149-93-4.

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