In the mid-2000s, as concerns about conference realignment mounted and television contracts subsequently renegotiated, Thursday Night suddenly rose like a phoenix from the ashes to become a viable program. college game day chance.
As it has been, Friday Night Lights used to mark the beginning of a weekend full of games. High school dance on Friday. School on Saturday. Professional football on Sunday. Rinse. Repeat.
In 1970, the NFL began reserving weekends with Monday matchups, but the Thursday property still had untapped potential.
Then, in 1992, ESPN stepped in and consolidated their rights to ESPN College Football Thursday Primetime. However, before that move there was the West Virginia Mountaineers.
On Nov. 22, 1990, the Mountaineers (4-6), coached by Don Nehlen, broke through on Thursdays with a 29-10 loss to South Carolina (5-5) at Williams-Brice Stadium. Thus began West Virginia’s rocky relationship with Thursday road games.
The team did not play another Thursday game until four seasons later. Nehlen’s 15th season in charge saw a pair of Big East Thursday games: a road loss to No. 14 Virginia Tech (34-6) and a home win over No. 22 Syracuse (13-0). . To this day, that Syracuse win is the only ranked team West Virginia has beaten on a Thursday.
It seemed like the Mountaineers were being groomed for a program with no positivity on Thursday nights.
So… six seasons of conventional Saturday games passed.
The turn of the century saw WVU appear twice in Thursday matchups: the show’s first road win over Temple, 29-24; and another loss on the road to No. 3 Virginia Tech, 48-20.
2001 and 2003, under head coach Rich Rodriguez, the Mountaineers faced the local Miami teams, taking first and second place respectively, losing to both. 2001 turned into an awful 45-3, while 2003 was significantly closer to 22-20. Regardless, Thursday night away games remained gold and blue foes.
2003 began a series of annual Thursday games that lasted until WVU and the Big East Conference parted ways. On a positive note, the Milan Puskar Stadium began hosting Mountaineer midweek wins.
2004 alternate Thursday results. A 27-16 win over Syracuse was met with a 16-13 loss to Pitt. 2005 hosted a Backyard Brawl rematch on Milan Puskar; No. 11 West Virginia added a 45-13 win to their eventual 11-1 (7-0) season under Rodriguez, and the midweek victory continued.
march 2005 saw ESPNU programming launch and suddenly exposure to college football exploded. The next season, WVU jumped to three Thursday night games, but handled the changing weekly game plans with ease. No. 10 West Virginia closed out a loss to No. 5 Louisville (44-34) with wins over Maryland (45-24) and a second straight Backyard Brawl win, this time on the road, 45-27.
It wasn’t until 2007 that West Virginia collected a clean sweep of its Thursday schedule. The No. 4 Mountaineers beat the Terrapins for the second straight season (31-14) at then-Chevy Chase Bank Field at Byrd Stadium. Then no. World 7 West Virginia also doubled down on wins with a 38-31 victory over Louisville, en route to an 11-2 record.
After that reprieve, the Mountaineers fell back to a home win: the stupor of road loss. Under head coach Bill Stewart, WVU gave up an away game in overtime to Colorado (17-14), but beat Auburn 34-17 in the Gold Rush.
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West Virginia would strike back at the Buffaloes in 2009. At Milan Puskar Stadium, WVU beat Colorado 35-24 in front of a packed house.
2010 and 2011 traded their Thursday fights with Colorado for the warmth of South Florida. West Virginia swept the USF Bulls at home 20-6 in 2010 and posted the program’s fourth road win on Thursday, 30-27, at Raymond James Stadium in 2011.
Going 12-8 on Thursdays, the Mountaineers took a three-season break from weekday appearances. Once the conference realignment reached Mountain State, Thursday night games seemed to all but evaporate from the schedule.
Since 2014, West Virginia has only played six Thursday night games, two of which have been against the Baylor Bears. Also, the Big 12 conference-ranked members have been the most played opponents since the change, and WVU hasn’t fared as well.
2014 and 2015 each saw one Thursday game; No. 12 Kansas State arrived at Milan Puskar Stadium and stole a 26-20 win from the Mountaineers’ near-flawless record at home on Thursday. Then in 2015, the show continued its statistical odds with a road loss to No. 3 TCU, 40-10.
2016 and 2017 kept Saturday games conventional, and the mystique of Thursday primetime games carried over to other victims.
That is until 2018, during head coach Dana Holgorsen’s final season. In blowout fashion, the No. 13 Mountaineers sent the Baylor Bears packing to the tune of a 58-14 home victory. Nearly an entire crowd sat down to watch the 5-1 Mountaineers and Bears square off, and Mountaineer fans had reason to celebrate.
So, Holgorsen left. Head coach Neal Brown took over the program and immediately ran into trouble. Thursday’s tides turned and Baylor entered the 2019 meeting ranked No. 12. McLane Stadium played host and the Mountaineers boarded the plane back to Morgantown with their fifth loss of the season, 17-14.
In 2022, this Thursday means more. It’s not just an opportunity to rewrite the mistakes of the season. It’s a chance to continue to improve on a 9-1 home game record on Thursdays. It’s a chance to maintain a winning record against the Bears and remain undefeated against the program at Milan Puskar Stadium.
“It’s a night game,” Brown said. “It’s a Thursday night game. There have been some classic games here in West Virginia football history that are played on primetime television on Thursday nights, so we hope to add to that.”
The Mountaineers sit at 34-33 all-time on Thursdays, and tomorrow’s prime-time showing has implications that transcend records and stat sheets.
The game starts at 7 pm at the Milan Puskar stadium. It is also airing on FS1.
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