This Saturday, West Virginia travels to Happy Valley to take on #7 Penn State in a primetime 7:30 ET matchup, the 59th game in the historic rivalry. For context, the last time the Nittany Lions played the Mountaineers, George H.W. Bush was president, the Big Ten had ten members, and I was a year old. It’s been a while.
After a 31-year hiatus, this week sees the return of a storied regional rivalry, albeit without an official name or a fantastic trophy like the Old Oaken Bucket, Floyd of Rosedale, or the Purdue Cannon. Despite the campuses being geographically close and the teams having played every year from 1947 until 1992, this rivalry doesn’t carry the weight an outsider would expect. This likely has something to do with two particular facts:
1. Penn State leads the overall series 48-9-2, and at one point, had won 25 years straight. This was never remotely close to competitive.
2. Neither team hates the other as much as they both equally detest Pittsburgh. West Virginia cares infinitely more about the Backyard Brawl; Penn State feels the same about the Keystone Classic.
But you can’t compete every single year from the end of World War II until the Clinton presidency and not have some feelings about your opponent.
This year’s return of the WVU-PSU rivalry has broader relevance to the sport; it was the first historic regional game killed off by Big 10 expansion. No matter how many traditional annual games we lose from the addition of our soon-to-be B1G West Coast brethren in 2024, the death of the PSU-WVU yearly matchup in 1993 was the first casualty.
The season’s grand finale, Rivalry Week, is the best week in sports, but the matchups don’t need to be marquee events played near Thanksgiving to matter. The regional competitions, even the secondary ones, represent bragging rights for 364 days a year for the fanbases involved.
Conference-approved protected matchups won’t save the annual rock fight with your neighbors.
Even before the sport became what it is today, many of the best matches were scheduled at the end of the season. It was a known issue that some of the midseason games weren’t interesting. In October 1923, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle promoted a stacked weekend of college football by noting:
“There was a time when the followers of college football thought that only the games played towards the end of November were worth seeing. Now things are different.”
The biggest match of that weekend in 1923? Penn State vs. West Virginia, contending away from Happy Valley for the first time in the series.
The teams had previously matched up from 1904 until 1909, always at home for Penn State. The rivalry had already taken the form in which it would continue for another century; the Nittany Lions won all five contests, and West Virginia hadn’t scored a single point. The matchup faded for a decade until it was revived in 1923, precisely 100 years ago this October.
The venue would be the brand-new Yankees Stadium, the largest baseball stadium in the country, fresh off celebrating Babe Ruth and the Yankees in their inaugural World Series victory weeks earlier.
Penn State entered the season after a loss in the prior year’s Rose Bowl (to future Big Ten member USC). They bounced back by winning all four matchups in 1923, outscoring their opponents by 115 to 3. They hadn’t played anyone of real significance, but they were the obvious favorites.
The Mountaineers also entered the game undefeated. However, their streak extended further than Penn State’s; West Virginia had not lost a game outright for nearly two seasons. Having just smashed their rivals in front of 30,000 fans at Pittsburgh two weeks earlier, they continued their domination by shutting out Marshall 81 to 0.
The fans were ready. West Virginia commissioned a special train to take thousands of spectators and a massive marching band from Morgantown to the city. Both universities used the peak of technological innovation at the time: official watch locations with state-of-the-art telephonic updates on an electric scoreboard.
Despite losing their star QB to injury in the preceding game, Penn State would score early in the first quarter and take a 7-0 lead into halftime behind their immense offensive line. Undeterred by Penn State or the cavernous stadium, WVU staged an unexpected comeback in the second half. The Mountaineers took the lead 13-7 in the 4th, having missed the extra point following their second touchdown.
Penn State dramatically drove downfield late in the 4th to score the go-ahead touchdown and take the lead for good.
Except the Penn State kicker shanked the extra point. 13-13. West Virginia took possession and held on just long enough to force the tie and remain undefeated.
There were several fumbles and muffed punts. The scores were low, and the special teams failures were apparent and game-changing. The rushing averaged about 2 yards a carry, and both teams combined for 65 yards passing. It resembled nothing less than a present-day Big Ten West slog. It was a mess of a game.
It was, according to the Sunday Star, “a spectacular yet raggedly fought contest,” played in front of 25,000 fans in the biggest city in the world.
West Virginia shut out Penn State in the next two competitions, claiming bragging rights for the first time in the series. In 1925, WVU officially dedicated their stadium as Mountaineer Field during the Penn State matchup, which they won outright as a massive underdog. The local paper gloated that “West Virginia turned back the invasion of the Nittany Lions of Penn State here today.”
While ESPN coverage makes it seem that all that matters is the College Football Playoff, most college football is played far below that rarified air. If the powers that be continue breaking down historic conferences and shoving every major duel into Rivalry Week, brought to you by Dr. Pepper and primarily featuring the Game and the Iron Bowl, we will continue to lose the regional significance of the sport. Underrated regional rivalries are the lifeblood of college sports, and it’s precisely what we are burning away with the frantic league realignment cash grab of the past decade.