The date is November 21, 1964. The location is Mountaineer Field, traditional home of the West Virginia Mountaineers football team since it was erected in the late 1920s. The ninth-ranked Syracuse Orangemen will brave the hostile environs of “the Jewel of the Mountains” with representatives from the Sugar Bowl in the stands ready to bestow an invitation to the prestigious postseason tilt to the visitors after the game.
Ben Schwartzwalder, a Mountaineer lineman in the 1930s, patrols the sidelines for Syracuse, commanding a powerful running attack led by the two-headed monster of Jim Nance and Floyd Little, a pair of backs who would each break 1000 scrimmage yards that season. For Gene Corum’s West Virginia offense, fullback Dick Leftridge, the first African-American football player for the Mountaineers, brings a bruising ground element to go with the aerial attack of quarterback Allen McCune.
The presence of the Sugar Bowl representatives, Dr. Fred Wolfe Jr. specifically, put some added malice behind what was quickly becoming a rivalry. The bowl committee had already selected Syracuse to travel to New Orleans and battle LSU with plans to formally invite Schwartzwalder’s team in the locker room after this game. The true problems stemmed from a press release distributed by Wolfe before the game which already listed the West Virginia match-up as a win for Syracuse.
With the Mountaineers determined to prove the Sugar Bowl committee wrong, offensive coordinator Galen Hall came out throwing. McCune, converted to quarterback from safety earlier in the season, thrived in the intermediate passing game meaning split end Bob Dunlevy, fullback Ron Colaw, and tight end Milt Clegg were set to see considerable action. His connection with Dunlevy served as a 17-yard fire starter on the opening drive before back-to-back completions to Colaw and Clegg drove the ball to the Syracuse one. A sneak for McCune scored on the next play and West Virginia led 7-0.
For the rest of the first half, it was all Nance and Little. The speedy Little got the Orangemen on the board on the very next drive, scampering into the end zone from six yards out but an unsuccessful point after momentarily left West Virginia in the lead. A few minutes later, it was the burly Nance who got in on the action with his first score of the day. A two-point conversion made up for the missed extra point, giving Syracuse a 14-7 lead.
The Mountaineer defense struggled to slow the rushing attack down and the next score for the visitors would hit a bit closer to home. Syracuse quarterback Walley Mahle made it a two score game with a one-yard touchdown run for a 21-7 lead. Mahle, from Flemington, WV just 40 miles away from Morgantown, was a three-year starter for the Orangemen and quarterbacked a pair of ranked finishes under the legendary Schwartzwalder.
Mahle’s score was the final points of the first half, leaving the lead at 21-7. However, a midgame weather shift would mix up the dynamics of the second half. With the temperature dropping down to 24 degrees and the winds whipping up to 15 miles per hour, both squads had to make adjustments for the final thirty minutes.
A key conversion from McCune to Clegg got the offense rolling as the signal caller made that the first of three consecutive completions with the latter two going to Dunlevy and fullback John Piscorik. Leftridge got in on the big play act, rushing for 11 yards on a draw before McCune took a bootleg for 20 yards inside the Syracuse ten. A snap later, Clegg came open in the back corner of the end zone and McCune found him, cutting the deficit to one score.
The game slowed to a halt offensively with multiple punts coming from both teams. Finally, the stalemate was broken by West Virginia’s Jim Mazzella who stepped in front of Mahle’s pass, swinging momentum in the Mountaineers’ favor. With the third quarter winding down, Clegg made three catches on the final three plays of the frame to spot the ball on the six-yard line. Leftridge bullied his way into the end zone on the second play of the fourth with West Virginia taking its first lead since the first quarter 22-21.
Trailing by just a point, Jim Nance put his team on his back. Toting the ball six times, Nance ran for 49 yards and capped off the ensuing drive with the go-ahead touchdown. Syracuse had just over seven minutes to hold on to a 27-22 lead and save face in front of the Sugar Bowl representatives.
On third-and-ten, the Mountaineer offense caught a break. At the West Virginia 33, McCune dropped to throw and let the ball go in the direction of Dunlevy. The ball was batted up into the air and was hauled in by Clegg who picked up 12 yards and a first down. After a run for no gain and a penalty against Syracuse, McCune went under center at the 50-yard line. Looking downfield, he saw Dunlevy streaking down the left sideline. Syracuse defender Terrell Roe had fallen down on the play, leaving the receiver wide open. Dunlevy caught McCune’s pass in stride at the 28 and sprinted into the end zone without being touched. The two-point conversion could not be completed, leaving West Virginia ahead 28-27 with 6:06 to play.
Nance and Little each took short runs but failed to make a big impact. However, it was Mahle again making a play, keeping the ball for 24 yards to extend the drive. The drive went all the way to West Virginia’s 23 where Mahle was replaced by passing specialist Rich King. On fourth-and-six, King completed a short pass but the receiver was cut down after just two yards, giving the Mountaineers the ball back.
West Virginia had a chance to ice the game after Piscorik and Leftridge picked up nine on two plays. However, a sneak for McCune came up short and a 33-yard punt gave Syracuse a chance at its own 39.
A loss of three on first down made Schwartzwalder go back to the air. A deep ball missed the mark on second down but Brad Clarke snagged King’s pass for a gain of six on third. On fourth-and-seven, Mazzulla made another huge play to break up a pass and West Virginia took over.
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With just 14 seconds left, McCune took a knee but was hit late by three Syracuse players. Both teams started throwing punches before both benches cleared. Hundreds of fans poured onto the field as well to add to the chaos. It took over five minutes for Syracuse to reach its locker room, but in the end, the Mountaineers were the victors.