W.Va. Loss In '89 Fiesta Gave Notre Dame National Title
West Virginia's two trips to the Fiesta Bowl came during great seasons that could have been better
Dec. 24, 2007
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- West Virginia's two trips to the Fiesta Bowl came during great seasons that could have been much better.
The Mountaineers (10-2) find themselves headed to Arizona on Wednesday to get ready for No. 3 Oklahoma (11-2), still wondering how they lost to Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale that could have ensured a trip to the national title game in New Orleans.
But perhaps even more heart-wrenching was the trip in 1988, when Major Harris led West Virginia to an 11-0 regular season and a No. 3 national ranking -- and a chance to topple the nation's only other unbeaten team, top-ranked Notre Dame.
Going to the Fiesta Bowl back then was a big deal for West Virginia, which had played on New Year's Day only three times before. This would be its first since the 1954 Sugar Bowl.
Notre Dame was the consensus national champion that season under coach Lou Holtz, who took his teams to nine straight New Year's Day bowl games from 1987-95
"I don't think there's any question this was a bigger party for West Virginia than it was for Notre Dame, because they'd been exposed to some of those bigger games before," said former West Virginia coach Don Nehlen. "Our kids' eyes were probably bigger, so to speak.
"When you get out on that field, you would think all of that would go away."
Harris had set a school record for total offense that season (which he broke in 1989), and his uncanny scrambling ability gave defenses fits. But three plays into the Fiesta Bowl, West Virginia's chances went tumbling when Harris suffered a slight shoulder separation.
"As a football player you always think that you don't want to get hurt, and then in the biggest game of the year, it happens right away," Harris, who didn't return a telephone message recently, told the AP in a 1998 interview.
In the first series the Mountaineers also lost starting offensive lineman John Stroia with a concussion and running back Undra Johnson with a knee strain. The team also was without starting safety Darrell Whitmore, who broke his leg in the regular-season finale against Syracuse.
"That team had never suffered any injuries," Nehlen said. "We didn't have anybody hurt all year and Major never got hurt. He's big and strong. We really put in a lot of stuff that was geared to Major for that game. And it all went down the drain after the third play."
Notre Dame jumped ahead 16-0 on TD runs of 1 yard by Anthony Johnson and 5 yards by Rodney Culver, and Billy Hackett's 45-yard field goal. The Irish held West Virginia without a first down over the game's first 20 minutes and led 23-6 at halftime.
West Virginia didn't get its first touchdown until the third quarter, when Harris hit Grantis Bell from 17 yards out. Harris finished with 166 yards passing but managed only 11 on the ground.
The Mountaineers' only other score in the 34-21 loss came on Reggie Rembert's 3-yard run.
"I don't want this to sound like an excuse, because it's not. But we played Notre Dame with an injured quarterback and three starters out, and that just really hurt us badly," Nehlen said. "I thought we had a real, real chance to be very competitive with Notre Dame.
"But Notre Dame beat us and did a good job and I'm not really sure I did a great job of coaching. The media really engulfs you when you play for that national title. I'm not sure I handled that as well as Lou did."
Fifteen players from the 1988 team were drafted into the NFL over the next two years.
Harris was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy in 1988 and 1989. He left school after his junior year in 1989 and was drafted in the 12th round by the Los Angeles Raiders, though he never played a down in the NFL.
"It was a great experience. You don't get many chances to play for the national championship," Nehlen said. "We didn't get it done and that stuck with me all my coaching career, because we had a really good football team."