Just 89 days from now, West Virginia will kick off the 2022 college football season against its biggest rival.
The revitalization of the Backyard Brawl – 11 years after the last time the two programs met on the gridiron – is one of the most highly anticipated games of the Neal Brown era.
With that in mind, it gives us a good opportunity to look back on some of the best, or most-anticipated, season-opening games in program history.
Editor’s Note: This list features games played from 1950 to the present, as prior to that West Virginia largely began its season against regional opponents that are now Division-II schools.
2018: vs. Tennessee (in Charlotte, NC)
The second year of the Will Grier era at quarterback got off to a fantastic start.
West Virginia and Tennessee fans engaged in plenty of back-and-forth chatter leading up to the game, which only heightened the anticipation for the first contest of the season.
Grier and company were up 10-0 after the first quarter and outscored the Volunteers by 20 after halftime to secure a 40-14 season-opening victory.
Grier completed 25-of-34 passes for 429 yards and five touchdowns. David Sills V and Gary Jennings each eclipsed 100 receiving yards and caught at least one touchdown.
2014: vs. #2 Alabama (in Atlanta, GA)
This is one of those games where a couple of plays made a world of difference.
Coming off a 4-8 season, expectations varied for the Mountaineers entering the 2014 campaign, which started against an Alabama program that had won three of the previous five national championships.
The Crimson Tide held just a three-point lead heading into halftime, but the Alabama defense limited the Mountaineers to just six points in the second half. Nick Saban’s squad earned a 33-23 win.
A dropped pass near the goal line on WVU’s first drive cost the Mountaineers some points, and wound up leading to one of the bigger “What if?” games for the program in this century.
It did begin a dominant season for wideout Kevin White, who hauled in 13 passes for 216 yards and a touchdown against Alabama.
2012: vs. Marshall
To date, it’s the most recent playing of the Friends of Coal Bowl.
It also was the first game played following the 70-33 shellacking of Clemson in the 2012 Orange Bowl.
Behind the program’s all-time leading passer in Geno Smith, West Virginia dismantled the Thundering Herd defense in the 2012 season opener.
Smith completed all but four of his 36 pass attempts, threw for 323 yards, and added five total touchdowns. Shawne Alston led the WVU rushing attack with 123 yards and a pair of scores.
The Mountaineers just missed hitting the state’s interstate speed limit, winning 69-34.
2006: vs. Marshall
From the most recent playing, to the return of the Friends of Coal Boal.
The 2006 playing of the WVU-Marshall rivalry game marked the first meeting between the two in-state programs since 1997.
Rich Rodriguez’s Mountaineers started the season as the No. 7 team in the country, and his starting quarterback, running back, and full back were on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Steve Slaton, part of that famed trio, ran for 203 yards and scored two touchdowns. Pat White completed 10-of-14 passes for 168 yards. Defensively, West Virginia limited Marshall to just two scores in the 42-10 victory.
It was a dominant start to a dominant season, during which WVU rose to as high as third in the national polls, and finished the year ranked No. 10 in the country.
1998: vs. #1 Ohio State
It’s not often that the No. 1 team in the country comes to Morgantown. But that was the scenario to kick off the 1998 season.
A total of 68,409 fans – the third-largest crowd in Milan Puskar Stadium history – crowded around Mountaineer Field to watch the 11th-ranked Mountaineers host the top-ranked Buckeyes.
Despite a high-powered home offense that included Marc Bulger, Amos Zereoue, and Anthony Bect, it was Ohio State that flexed its abilities on offense. The Buckeyes scored 17 points in the second quarter, which propelled them to a 37-17 victory over Don Nehlen’s group.
Of note, Zereoue became WVU’s all-time leading rusher in this game.
1997: vs. Marshall
Some fans will remember this as the first football game between West Virginia and Marshall since 1923, ending a 74-year drought of gridiron matchups between the two in-state programs.
Others will remember it for one man, and he wasn’t wearing the home uniform.
That man is Randy Moss.
Despite recording just 85 receiving yards in the game, Moss continued to show why he was one of the premier talents in the country. His second of two third-quarter touchdown grabs gave Marshall a 31-28 lead.
Zereoue, however, rushed for 180 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-sealing score as part of the Mountaineers’ 42-31 win.
1996: at Pittsburgh
On November 24, 1995, West Virginia shutout rival Pittsburgh, winning by a final score of 21-0.
Just over nine months later, the Mountaineers blanked the Panthers again. This time, it happened in Pittsburgh.
Zereoue got the scoring started, as he took his first-ever carry against Pittsburgh 69 yards down the field for a touchdown. The Mountaineers led 17-0 at halftime and went on to win by a final score of 34-0.
That was 54 unanswered points scored by the Mountaineers between the ’95 and ’96 editions of the Backyard Brawl.
It is also the last time that WVU and Pitt played in any season before mid-November.
That is, until September 1, 2022.
1988: vs. Bowling Green
1988 is arguably the most famous season in WVU football history. It marked the first of two undefeated regular seasons under Nehlen and it led to West Virginia’s only appearance in college football’s national championship game.
None of that happens, though, if the Mountaineers stumble out of the gates against Bowling Green.
The 16th-ranked Mountaineers started by scoring 24 points in the game’s opening quarter. There was no looking back from there, as West Virginia cruised to a 62-14 victory on a nearly perfect day in Morgantown.
While the game itself may not have been all that highly anticipated, especially with games against Maryland, Pittsburgh, and Virginia Tech on the horizon, it did get WVU off to a good start to what became a historic season.
1982: at #9 Oklahoma
Don Nehlen versus Barry Switzer.
West Virginia at Number 9 Oklahoma, playing in front of 75,008 Sooner fans.
Oklahoma was the overwhelming favorite heading into the game, but Jeff Hostetler and WVU had other plans.
Hostetler tossed for 321 yards and four touchdowns in his first start for the Mountaineers. After trailing 14-0, West Virginia ripped off 20 straight points, including 10 in the final 15 seconds of the first half.
The Mountaineers used a big fourth quarter to earn its first-ever win over the Sooners by a final of 41-27. Nehlen later said that the victory over Oklahoma that day, “pretty much put West Virginia on the map as a major college football team.“
1969: vs. Cincinnati
The 1969 WVU football team had a pair of players – Bob Gresham and Jim Braxton – who went on to play in the National Football League on its roster.
It was a roster that had the makeup for putting together the best season of the Jim Carlen era. And it delivered.
Starting with the season-opener against Cincinnati, the 1969 Mountaineer team scored 30 or more points in seven of the 11 games it played that season. WVU scored a season-best 57 in a lopsided, 46-point win over the visiting Bearcats.
West Virginia’s lead was 34 points by the time Cincinnati finally got on the board in the third quarter.
WVU went on to complete its first 10-win season since 1922.
1963: vs. #9 Navy
There was no way of knowing then the type of a football career Navy’s quarterback would ultimately have, but fans on hand at Old Mountaineer Field on Sept. 21, 1963, would soon believe it.
West Virginia welcomed the ninth-ranked Midshipmen to Morgantown to begin the ’63 campaign. Leading the way for Navy was that season’s Heisman Trophy winner, Roger Staubach.
WVU didn’t have much of an answer for Navy that day, as Staubach completed 17-of-22 passes, and handed the ball off to a bevy of skilled tailbacks.
No. 9 Navy won easily 51-7 to kickstart a 4-6 season for WVU.
1956: vs. #10 Pitt
Another season that got underway against the Panthers. For the second year in a row, the Mountaineers would face a nationally ranked Pittsburgh team.
Statistically, West Virginia out-played Pitt in every way that afternoon, except for one. Quarterback Mickey Trimarki threw four interceptions.
WVU’s defense held the Panthers to just 96 yards of total offense, but couldn’t keep Pitt out of the end zone in the third quarter.
Four interceptions and a missed PAT in the second quarter were the difference.
Pittsburgh 14, West Virginia 13. A near-capacity crowd at Old Mountaineer Field filed out disappointed.
1954: at #15 South Carolina
That was not the case in the season-opener two years prior. This time, the Mountaineers were on the road against a ranked foe.
South Carolina held the No. 15 spot in the preseason rankings that year. But Art Lewis’ group was coming off an 8-2 season, and was keen on repeating that success.
Weston, West Virginia native Fred Wyant led the Mountaineers on scoring drives in each of the first three quarters. Wyant’s one-yard scoring run gave WVU a 13-0 lead at halftime, and an identical scoring run in the third quarter put West Virginia ahead by 20.
The unranked Mountaineers defeated the Gamecocks by a final of 26-6 in the first of two road victories over ranked teams in the first three weeks of the season.
It also avenged a loss from November of the previous season, which was the only blip in an otherwise perfect regular season.
1953: at #17 Pitt
West Virginia was Number 16. Pittsburgh was Number 17.
This marked the first time in the history of the Backyard Brawl that both teams were ranked on the date they squared off.
Wyant scored from one yard out to put WVU ahead, but Pitt evened up the score at seven points apiece before halftime. A short field goal gave West Virginia the lead in the third quarter, and another rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter put the game away.
WVU went on to win each of its first seven games of the year and fell just seven points shy of going 9-0 in the 1953 campaign.
West Virginia’s victory in the ’53 playing of the Backyard Brawl also marked the first time in 30 years that WVU had beaten its archrival in back-to-back seasons.
WVU begins the 2022 regular season versus Pittsburgh at Heinz Field on September 1.