An old rivalry kicks off the schedule.
I remember sitting in the stands in 1988 watching what may have been the best half of football in WVU Mountaineer history. It seemed like a dream that was coming true in front of 60,000 pairs of eyes. Major Harris looked like a man playing against boys as WVU dismantled Penn State. After so many nasty defeats at the hands of the Nittany Lions, it was our day—and what a beautiful day it was. The half-time score was 41–8. The Mountaineers scored on seven of eight first-half possessions—five touchdowns and two field goals—and outgained Penn State 421 yards to 140.
The game ended with the Mountaineers winning by a score of 51–30. Harris had outgained the entire Penn State team, 301 yards to 292. It couldn’t get any better.
In the 2023 season opener on September 2, WVU travels to Happy Valley to face the Nittany Lions once again. It’s the 60th time in school history that these two rivals have met, but the first time since 1992. Penn State leads the series by a wide margin, with 48 wins against nine losses and two ties—including winning the last four meetings after that glorious fall afternoon in 1988.
All WVU fans are excited for this rivalry to return. Penn State will come to Morgantown in the 2024 season. Even though the players and coaches have all changed, the chance to knock off one of the most storied programs in the country adds a huge dose of excitement to the schedule.
“It’s the Mountaineers’ first visit to State College since 1991,” says longtime Mountaineers broadcaster Tony Caridi. “WVU has not won there since 1954. So, with a great challenge comes great opportunity.”
It’s different, opening the season with a big game. “It changes your approach,” says WVU Head Coach Neal Brown. “The opening part of the schedule is really challenging. Penn State is really good, no matter when we play them, but the fact that you open up with them—that brings a sense of urgency to your preparation.”
After a September 9 game with Duquesne, the Backyard Brawl comes to prime time with a 7:30 p.m. showdown on September 16 with the Pitt Panthers under the lights at Mountaineer Field. After a 10-plus-year hiatus, Mountaineer fans were thrilled with the renewal of this storied rivalry in 2022. WVU came up on the short end of an exciting 38–31 offense-filled contest and will be looking for revenge in 2023.
“Last year, we were ready to play mentally and physically,” says Brown. “We played well enough to win, and then we didn’t make winning plays at winning times. These games are important, and it matters because it’s a rivalry game—we don’t try to undersell it.”
The first Backyard Brawl was in 1895—yes, 1895! These teams played 104 times between 1895 and 2011. And in fact, the 1921 edition was the first football game ever broadcast on radio. “The Backyard Brawl embodies the essence of college sports. A rivalry that withstood the test of time,” says Caridi. “It’s called a ‘brawl’ for a reason.”
A Trip to Dana’s Place
WVU’s Big 12 schedule kicks off on September 23 when the Texas Tech Red Raiders invade Morgantown for the first of nine consecutive conference match-ups for the Old Gold and Blue. But the date that has everyone talking is an October 12 trip to new Big 12 member Houston. The Cougars are led by former WVU Head Coach Dana Holgorsen, the coach Neal Brown replaced in 2019. Holgorsen isn’t the only Houston Cougar who will face his former school: Four former Mountaineers have transferred to Houston since Holgorsen took the helm.
“WVU hasn’t faced former head coaches often,” says broadcaster Tony Caridi. “The last time was the 2009 season, when WVU met Bobby Bowden and Florida State in the Gator Bowl.”
In 2023, the Big 12 Conference will be made up of 14 teams. Oklahoma and Texas have departed and been replaced by BYU, UCF, Cincinnati, and Houston. Each team will play nine league games. The top two finishers by conference-win percentage in the regular season standings will compete for the league title in the Dr. Pepper Big 12 Football Championship Game on Saturday, December 2, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The future of the Big 12 looks strong. “The new television agreement has positioned the league as a solid No. 3 behind the Big 10 and SEC,” says Caridi. “That’s good news when you consider the doomsday fears after the Oklahoma and Texas decisions to leave.”
Coming off a disappointing 5–7 campaign in 2022, Coach Brown and the Mountaineers are looking for an improved 2023 that will culminate in a trip to a significant bowl game.
“On offense, it’s a matter of what your offensive line can do and then what your quarterback can do. That will determine what you can run,” says Brown. “To improve on defense, we’ve been focusing on alignment, effort, and physicality.”
Brown says he knows they need to win. “But I have confidence in myself and my staff and in the team that we’ve put together against a really tough schedule. I’m not spending my time worrying. I have some gray hair, but that’s more because I have one teenage daughter rather than because we have to figure out how to win some games.”