By Cam Huffman
West Virginia will travel to Norman, Okla., Saturday as a heavy underdog against the No. 16 Oklahoma Sooners. The Mountaineers and their third-year coach, Dana Holgorsen have major questions on both sides of the ball, and their starting quarterback, Paul Millard, will be playing in a hostile road environment for the first time.
It’s a familiar situation to Steve Newberry, a junior defensive back the last time WVU made the trip to Owen Field. That 1982 Mountaineer team was led by third-year coach Don Nehlen, and Penn State transfer Jeff Hostetler was making his first start at quarterback. Even after a Peach Bowl win over Florida to end the 1981 season, few expected WVU to put up much of a fight against Barry Switzer and his mighty Sooners.
“I don’t know if there was that many people that thought we had a chance,” said Newberry, a Peterstown native, who recently hung up his football coaching whistle, stepping down as an assistant at James Monroe. “There wasn’t the media and social media that there is today, and the coaches didn’t want us to read or listen to that stuff anyway. But we knew nobody expected much out of us.
“We were coming off a Peach Bowl win, but a lot of people thought it was a fluke. We had a new quarterback and a lot of questions.”
Inside the program, though, the message was different. Nehlen joked that the Mountaineers had almost “killed those horses” when it went to OU and lost 52-10 in 1978 under Frank Cignetti — referring to the Sooner Schooner, a conestoga wagon that makes a lap around the field with each Sooner touchdown. He told his team they weren’t going to let that happen this time around.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a team that was that focused and well prepared,” said Newberry. “We had prepared all August for that game and we were ready.
“The coaches told us not to panic, even if we fell behind, and just stick to the game plan.”
That advice proved valuable.
Oklahoma’s Steve Sewell went 46 yards on the second play of the game, and five plays later the Sooners found the end zone for a 7-0 lead. On its next possession, OU went 61 yards in 13 plays to go ahead by two scores.
The Mountaineers were down 14-0 against the No. 9 team in the country, battling the almost unbearable September Oklahoma heat and looking up at a see of red unlike anything they had ever seen. But the WVU sidelines remained calm.
“That’s what Coach Nehlen and the rest of the coaches prepared us for,” said Newberry, who joked that the red didn’t bother him, because it was no different than what he saw at Peterstown High. “There was no panic. There was a collective calm, and the coaches told us to continue to not look at the scoreboard until the game was over.”
That final look, though, was one Newberry and his teammates will never forget. WVU outscored the Sooners 41-13 the rest of the way to pull off a 41-27 upset. Hostetler completed 17 of 37 passes for 321 yards and four touchdowns, and OU fell in its home opener for the first time since 1965.
“They didn’t get us out of our running game, and, defensively, we made some adjustments and got some stops,” said Newberry, still the WVU career leader with 20 interceptions and a member of the WVU Sports Hall of Fame. “If not the biggest, it was one of the biggest upsets I’ve been a part of. I like to think that it catapulted our football program to a different level.
“It was quite a memory and quite a trip.”
The memory didn’t end in Norman, either. After landing in Pittsburgh, Pa., the WVU team and support staff boarded three buses for the trip back to Morgantown. They were met at the state line by a state trooper, who told them he would be escorting them back to the stadium.
“It was close to midnight, but that woke us up a little bit,” Newberry remembered. “I remember getting off the ramp and seeing people parked along the road blowing horns and waiving. We turned down the road past the Coliseum and saw that the stadium lights were on. When we got there, there were 10-20 thousand people there. They were beating on the bus and just so excited. It was unbelievable.”
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Newberry will be in front of his television Saturday night at 7 p.m., tuned into FOX hoping to see the Mountaineers pull off another shocker in Norman.
He’s not making any predictions, but he does see the similarities between this trip to Norman and the one 21 years ago.
“Not too many people are talking about us,” he said. “The underdog is not a bad spot to be in.
“We’ve got some good personnel. I’m really anxious to see how we develop. They always say the biggest improvement happens from Week 1 to Week 2.”
— E-mail: chuffman
@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.