It wasn’t supposed to end this way, not with a nightmarish scene like this.
Two guys in black jackets, with “VIP Security Services” inscribed on their backs, assisted college football’s bright new star, Major Harris, onto the bus of broken dreams.
Harris and his West Virginia teammates had just been been given a 34-21 thumping by Notre Dame. A couple of teammates and some fans watched with sad faces as Harris, his left arm bound in a sling-like device, was helped onto the bus.
For longtime West Virginia faithful, it was a second nightmare come to life, this time under a cold, cloudy and sometimes rainy sky in Tempe’s Fiesta Bowl.
In 1954, the Mountaineers went to the Sugar Bowl and were pounded by Georgia Tech, 42-19. It wasn’t quite that bad Monday, but it might well have been.
In the aftermath, some of West Virginia’s players wondered whether things might have turned out differently if Harris had not injured his non-throwing shoulder on the third play of the game when a Notre Dame tackler drove Harris’ into the soggy Sun Devil Stadium turf.
“He hurt the (left) shoulder, and when he came back to the huddle, I could see he was hurt,” running back Craig Taylor said afterward.
“I said to him: ‘Hey, if you’re not 100%, go on out.’ He said he’d play, but his injury took us out of our game plan. We weren’t running the plays we wanted to, and it seemed like we were in a 1-2-3-punt rhythm all day.”
West Virginia Coach Don Nehlen said Notre Dame earned this one and left no doubts. At least, not with his team.
“Notre Dame deserved it. They beat us up front on both sides of the line of scrimmage,” he said.
Notre Dame quarterback Tony Rice seemed to have his way all day, right up West Virginia’s middle, whether it was passing or running.
When asked to explain it, Harris said: “That’s what I’d like to know. Our linebackers, I guess, were sniffing run more than pass, and Notre Dame did seem like they were open a lot up the middle.”
Concurring was West Virginia’s all-East linebacker, Bobby Pickett.
“We were too run-conscious against them,” he said. “I think we practiced too much against the run. That tight end (sophomore Derek Brown) killed us. He was open a lot.”
Harris and Pickett agreed that the Mountaineers seemed to lack emotion.
“I don’t know why, but it didn’t seem to me we were as pumped up as we should have been,” Pickett said.
Harris said: “We weren’t pumped up at the beginning of the game like we usually were . . . don’t ask me why.”
Nehlen said Harris’ injury changed the Mountaineers’ game plan, but he did not explain why hedidn’t pull Harris. After the first series, Harris’ backup, Greg Jones, started throwing on the sideline. Harris didn’t return to the field after halftime until just before the kickoff.
“In a sense, Major’s sore shoulder made him tentative on some plays, and so we became tentative,” Nehlen said.
West Virginia trailed from start to finish and was down, 23-6, at halftime.
“I told them at the half we weren’t out of it, that we could still win it,” Nehlen said. “When it was over, I told them to hold their heads up, that they’d had a great season.”
And so that’s how it ended for West Virginia’s best season, an 11-0 year until Monday.
Nehlen credited Notre Dame’s seek-and-destroy defense for most of the damage. In a sense, that defense subtracted one entire quarter, the first, from the Mountaineers.
Offensively, West Virginia did virtually nothing in the first quarter, while Notre Dame rolled up a 9-0 lead. With Harris hurting, West Virginia didn’t make a single first down in the quarter and didn’t reach the 50-yard line until the final play.
Then Rice, playing very much the way Major Harris had all year, bumped the score up to 16-3 and 23-3 before Charlie Baumann’s second field goal made it 23-6 at the end of the half.
Harris seemed to have loosened up midway through the third quarter when, on a drive aided by a 15-yard roughing-the-passer penalty against Notre Dame, he hit Grantis Bell with a 15-yard scoring pass.
For the first time, 11,000 West Virginians in a crowd of 74,911 (a Sun Devil Stadium record), had something to holler about. And when Willie Edwards of West Virginia intercepted a Rice pass two plays later and returned it to the Irish 26, West Virginians made the top deck rock a bit.
Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, on third and 12 from Notre Dame’s 30, a big Irish rush sacked Harris for a 12-yard loss, and that, as the coach later agreed, was that. One minute 12 seconds remained in the third quarter.
“The big sack killed us,” Nehlen said. “If we put points on the board there, we’re back in the game. But once again, Notre Dame made a big play and we didn’t. Give them credit.
“I’m just happy we don’t have to play them next year.”
The big sack. The Mountaineers said afterward that it knocked them flat.
“The sack took all the air out of our balloon,” said Kevin Koken, the all-East center.
“I think we played quicker, stronger teams than Notre Dame this year, but we didn’t play well ourselves. We can say Major was hurt, and that that hurt us, but even considering that . . . we still didn’t play well.”
Pickett described a quiet, grim locker room, where 11-0 had become 11-1 with a thud.
“It was very quiet. You can imagine what it was like. We wanted it bad . . . and now we’ve got to live with it.”
As the two security men helped Harris onto the West Virginia bus, a few die-hard fans were nearby, watching.
“Good luck next year, Major,” a girl yelled.
Harris heard it, smiled ruefully, and shrugged.