N A S H V I L L E, Tenn., Dec. 28, 2000 -- Finally, the biggest blemish on DonNehlen’s record has been removed.
Nehlen avoided his ninth straight bowl loss heading intoretirement as West Virginia beat Mississippi 49-38 in the MusicCity Bowl behind a record performance from oft-injured quarterbackBrad Lewis and a wild finish.
“My wife will be able to serve me cereal in a bowl — and Iwon’t lose it,” Nehlen said.
Nehlen, who finishes with a 202-128-8 record in 30 seasons as acoach, had not won a bowl game since the 1984 Bluebonnet. That alsowas the final game as a player for his replacement, Rich Rodriguez,who was hired last month.
In fact, Nehlen had not enjoyed a lead in a bowl since 1994, aspan of four games. Two years ago, the last time it went to a bowl,West Virginia fell behind 24-3 at halftime to Missouri in theInsight.com Bowl and never recovered.
Having Fun With the Offense
This time, West Virginia (7-5) turned the tables behind five TDpasses and 318 yards from Lewis, who had played much of the seasonwith a sore knee and throwing hand and had eight TDs in the regularseason.
“He was hitting them on the money,” Nehlen said. “That was almost a flawless first half.”
Nehlen said all week he planned to open up his lethargic offenseand have some fun. With season-long problems on special teams —including blocked punts and bad snaps — he went as far as saying hemight not want to punt on fourth down.
He didn’t have to. The Mountaineers’ first punt came in thefinal seconds of the third quarter with his team enjoying a40-point lead.
And even then, Nehlen didn’t stop coaching.
Nehlen, who turns 65 on New Year’s Day, chased down the refereeson a pair of defensive penalties in the third quarter.
After Mississippi made the game interesting midway through thefourth quarter, he jumped into his sideline huddles and pointed afinger at his players.
They weren’t going to let this one slip away. Lance Frazier’s40-yard interception return with three minutes left finishedMississippi’s chances of a miracle comeback.
As Nehlen accepted the Music City Bowl trophy for his team, WestVirginia fans screamed, “Nehlen! Nehlen!” He grabbed a microphone and publicly thanked them, then went to the locker room to be withhis team.
“I just told them basically, as a coaching staff, we love themall,” he said. “A lot of hugs, and they were all sweating.”
“Coach is a strong man,” said offensive lineman TannerRussell. “But the strongest man is one who knows he’s allowed to cry. There was a lot of emotion in there. It’s irreplaceable.”
18 Plays, 5 Touchdowns
If there was a team that had a reason not to be focused, it wasthe Mountaineers, who had endured a month’s worth of distractions.
Besides the bowl streak and Nehlen’s final game, Rodriguez madepeople on campus nervous by saying he would not retain the majorityof Nehlen’s assistants, who also were coaching their final gamestoday.
Also, Rodriguez said in his first news conference that noplayers’ jobs were secure. So some, including Lewis, a junior,wondered if they were starting their final games.
Lewis responded. He threw two TD passes apiece to Khori Ivy andAntonio Brown. Wes Ours caught a 40-yard TD pass and scored on a1-yard run. Shawn Terry returned the second-half kickoff 99 yardsfor a score.
The Mountaineers needed just 18 total plays to score fivefirst-half touchdowns.
“I wanted to walk off this field knowing I played 100 percentfor coach Nehlen and myself,” Lewis said.
West Virginia’s eight straight bowl losses had tied it withSouth Carolina. Although the NCAA doesn’t keep records for bowlfutility, the streak was believed to be the longest ever inDivision I-A. South Carolina’s streak was from 1946 to 1998 beforeit beat the Mountaineers in the 1995 Carquest Bowl.