A Brawl Recalled

After 16 years, the name of Marvin Graves still brings a frown to the face of many Mountaineer fans.

Throughout the 55 previous meetings between West Virginia and Syracuse, there have been many milestone memories for both schools.

Legendary names such as Jim Brown, Sam Huff, Donovan McNabb and Major Harris dot the landscape of battles past between the programs. Watershed moments for each school occurred in the annual tilt.

In 1987, Don McPherson's two-point conversion run in the Carrier Dome lifted the Orange to a 32-31 victory over Don Nehlen's Mountaineers, clinching an undefeated regular season for Syracuse.

One year later in Morgantown, the Mountaineers returned the favor, sewing up the undefeated regular season with a 31-7 thrashing of the Orange.

Of all the moments and all the memories in this storied rivalry, though, perhaps none stands out more than the infamous Marvin Graves incident. Ask current WVU associate head coach Steve Dunlap about it and the veteran coach grimaces with pain…literally.

"I broke my hand," he recalled. "I smashed the press box window. That wasn't very smart."

The year was 1992. The site was Milan Puskar Stadium, at the time known simply as Mountaineer Field. West Virginia entered the game with an oddly-assembled undefeated record of three wins (at home over Maryland and road triumphs over rivals Pitt and Virginia Tech) and two ties (a head-scratching 29-29 season opener against Miami of Ohio and a 24-all draw the previous week against No. 22 Boston College).

Despite the ties, the Mountaineers had cracked the rankings in the week leading up to the Syracuse game. The Orange (back then they were known as the Orangemen), stood at No. 14.

West Virginia led 10-3 at the half. A Syracuse touchdown in the third quarter tied the game at 10, setting up what should have been a dramatic fourth-quarter finish.

Unfortunately, the drama came for all the wrong reasons.

With the Mountaineers leading late in the game, Syracuse quarterback Marvin Graves scrambled out of the pocket before being ushered to the sideline by defensive back Tommy Orr. What happened next is still – 16 years later – one of the more agitating moments in West Virginia football history.

Dunlap, West Virginia's defensive coordinator at the time, recalls the ensuing sideline fracas like it was yesterday.

"What happened was this: Marvin ran out of bounds and Tommy Orr pushed him out and had a hold of him," explained Dunlap, who coaches West Virginia's safeties. "Tommy started to walk away and Marvin threw the ball off the back of his helmet. Kevin Rogers, my buddy who I coached with at Navy and is the quarterbacks coach for the Vikings now, he grabbed Tommy Orr.

"After that, all hell broke loose."

Indeed it did. With Orr surrounded by white jerseys on the visitor's sideline, a host of Mountaineers came running to his aide. After several minutes, the Big East officiating crew was able to separate the mess. The officials huddled for an extended period of time, with lead official John Soffey soon announcing the crew's controversial conclusions.

"They threw Mike Collins out, a two-time all-Big East player," Dunlap recalled. "They threw my nickel back out, and they threw Tom Briggs out, my best pass rusher in a two-minute defense. You couldn't have handpicked three worse players (to throw out)."

Graves, who started the brawl, remained in the game. So, too, did Rogers, who would later be promoted to offensive coordinator at SU before heading to Virginia Tech. In fact, only one Syracuse player, a reserve offensive lineman, was given an early shower.

As Collins exited the playing field following his ejection, he winged his helmet to the turf in disgust. What followed was perhaps the biggest punch to the gut of all.

"Then, they went down and scored," Dunlap said. "(During the scoring drive), they got a run where our best pass rusher was supposed to flush out. And, they beat Mike Collins's backup."

"That's when I smashed my hand into the window."

In the immediate aftermath of the stunning defeat, normally-mild-mannered head coach Don Nehlen did not mince words.

"I've coached a long time, but I don't think I've ever had one taken from me like that before," Nehlen said in his postgame press conference. "It's a crime.

"The fight that broke out, that was a disaster," continued the future College Football Hall of Famer. "Their guy takes the ball and smashes our guy and we lose three. The guy that starts the fight keeps playing."

West Virginia, it turned out, would not recover for the rest of the season. Losses to powerhouses Penn State and Miami followed the Syracuse game in succession. The Mountaineers would win games against non-league foes East Carolina and Louisiana Tech while the Orange would march on to win the Fiesta Bowl over Colorado at season's end.

For the most part, the WVU-Syracuse rivalry has been more cordial than, say, the Backyard Brawl. For one afternoon in 1992, however, that simply was not the case.

Perhaps Dunlap summed it up best.

"It was just crazy," he concluded, "just crazy."


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