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Thanks for the Memories, Big East

By Matt Smith
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Despite being the butt of many jokes at times, particularly since the ACC first raided the league in 2003, the Big East produced some memorable games over the past two decades.

On Sunday at midnight, the 22-year history of Big East football officially ends. The new Big East conference, featuring predominantly Catholic universities, will not sponsor football, while the old Big East formally becomes the American Athletic Conference.

The conference, albeit in a limited time, produced one consensus national champion and one split national champion, the same amount as the Big Ten did in that span. On three other occasions, a Big East team played for a national title. Three teams - 2006 Louisville, 2007 West Virginia and 2009 Cincinnati -narrowly missed out on BCS Championship Game appearances. The league’s record in BCS bowls was 8-6, far better than that of both the ACC and Big Ten.

Despite being the butt of many jokes at times, particularly since the ACC first raided the league in 2003, the Big East produced some memorable games over the past two decades. As we prepare to officially close the books on Big East football, let’s look back at the 10 best Big East games of all time.

10. Pittsburgh 41, West Virginia 38 (2OT) (1997)

The “Backyard Brawl” between Pitt and West Virginia has provided some classic games through the years, including the stunning 2007 upset by Pitt in Morgantown as four-touchdown underdogs, but no game in the 21 years as Big East rivals was wilder than the one 10 years prior, also in Morgantown. Walt Harris’ first Pitt team was looking to snap an eight-year bowl drought, but needed a win on its rival’s home field to do so.

The Panthers were in good shape, leading by 10 with 10 minutes to go, but Marc Bulger and the Mountaineers rallied to tie the game at 35-35 with just over a minute to play. Both teams came up empty on their first possessions in overtime. West Virginia grabbed 38-35 lead in the second overtime on a 52-yard field goal by Jay Taylor. Pitt had a chance to win, but were faced with a 4th-and-17 from outside of field goal range. Pete Gonzalez miraculously connected with Jake Hoffart for a 20-yard gain and a first down, and then locked up a bowl bid for the Panthers with a 12-yard touchdown toss to Terry Murphy.

9. Louisville 20, Rutgers 17 (2012)

A BCS bowl berth awaited the winner of the season finale between the 9-2 Cardinals and 9-2 Scarlet Knights. With Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater not starting due to a broken wrist, it looked like Rutgers would finally earn a major bowl berth that had eluded them since returning to prominence some seven years earlier. A fake field goal appeared to give the Scarlet Knights a 21-3 lead in the second half, but a penalty nullified the play, keeping the Cardinals alive.

Bridgewater, doing his best Willis Reed impression just a few miles away from Madison Square Garden, came off the bench to throw two touchdown passes in a matter of 16 seconds, sandwiched around a fumble on a kickoff return. Rutgers clawed back to tie the game at 17-17 midway through the fourth quarter, and was driving again when a Gary Nova pass deflected off Tim Brown’s hands right to Louisville linebacker James Burgess. Bridgewater would cap a legendary performance, leading the Cardinals into field goal range, where John Wallace’s 29-yard field goal with 1:41 to play won the Big East title for Louisville.

8. West Virginia 17, Boston College 14 (1993)

A week after a stunning upset of No. 1 Notre Dame, Boston College welcomed 10-0 West Virginia to Chestnut Hill, looking to spoil another unbeaten season. Playing without injured quarterback Jake Kelchner, the Mountaineers trailed 14-3 in the fourth quarter and appeared headed to defeat. 1993, however, was full of magic for Don Nehlen’s team, and the season finale was no different.

After nearly blowing a 38-17 lead a week earlier in South Bend, the Eagles again melted down, committing four fourth-quarter turnovers to help set up West Virginia with a chance to win the game. Trailing 14-9, backup quarterback Darren Studstill found Ed Hill for a 24-yard score with just over a minute to play. Mike Logan’s second interception in as many possessions sealed the win for the Mountaineers, West Virginia would be denied a shot at the national title game against Nebraska, as 10-1 Florida State was selected ahead of the 11-0 Mountaineers.

7. Miami 10, West Virginia 7 (1996)

The name Tremaine Mack probably doesn’t ring a bell in 49 of 50 states, but in the state of West Virginia, he will never be forgotten. The history of West Virginia football has been marred by near misses, and the 7-0, No. 11 Mountaineers added to that history on a late October night in 1996 when Miami ventured into Mountaineer Field. A sluggish game saw West Virginia clinging to a 7-3 lead with 30 seconds remaining, needing only to get off a punt to all but ensure victory.

Like so many times before, it didn’t happen. Mack burst through the West Virginia line, nearly taking the ball directly off of punter Brian West’s foot. Jack Hallmon picked up the loose ball and ran it back 20 yards to lift Miami to one of its most improbable victories. It was the sixth time that season that West Virginia had a punt blocked but it was by far the most significant. The Mountaineers would drop three of its next four games to finish 8-4 after their 7-0 start – and that’s why Mack is likely forever unwelcome in the Mountain State.

6. Miami 26, Virginia Tech 24 (2001)

The best college football team of my lifetime needed just one win over a team that had become its biggest Big East rival to lock up a trip to the national title game. All appeared to be going well on a gloomy December afternoon in Blacksburg for Miami, leading 20-3 at halftime, but 8-2 Virginia Tech was not about to let the unbeaten ‘Canes complete a perfect season without a fight.

Trailing 26-10 early in the fourth quarter, the Hokies pulled within a score on a Jarrett Ferguson touchdown run Terrell Parham two-point conversion. After Miami was forced to punt, “Beamer Ball” happened, as Brandon Manning scooped up a blocked punt and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown with six minutes to go. It looked like the game would be tied when Grant Noel found a wide open Ernest Wilford on the conversion attempt, but Wilford couldn’t hang on and the pass fell incomplete. Ed Reed intercepted Noel on the Hokies' last desperation attempt, completing Miami’s first perfect regular season since 1992.

5. Cincinnati 45, Pittsburgh 44 (2009)

It was a winner-take all showdown at Heinz Field between 11-0 Cincinnati and 9-2 Pittsburgh. Whoever claimed victory would also claim the conference title, with the Bearcats also clinging to slim national title hopes. The Panthers scored on their first five possessions, including four touchdowns, to storm to a 31-10 lead amid snow flurries in the Steel City. A crucial kickoff return for a touchdown just before halftime by Mardy Gilyard closed Cincinnati to within 14.

The Bearcats would finally pull even at 38-38 with just under six minutes to go when Isaiah Pead scored from one yard out and Tony Pike connected with Gilyard for a two-point conversion. Pitt answered right back, as Dion Lewis’ five-yard run with 1:36 to play put the Panthers ahead, but a bad snap on the extra point kept the lead at six. The Bearcats would not be denied, however, as Pike found Armon Binns from 29 yards out with just 33 seconds remaining to tie the game. Jake Rogers’ extra point provided the winning margin in Brian Kelly’s final game as coach of Cincinnati before leaving for Notre Dame five days later.

4. Syracuse 28, Virginia Tech 26 (1998)

In the late ‘90s, the Hokies and Orange (Orangemen at the time) combined to win five consecutive league titles. The 1998 conference title would be decided on a mid-November night at the Carrier Dome between a pair of 6-2 teams. Two non-offensive touchdowns propelled the visitors to a 21-3 lead, but Donovan McNabb brought Syracuse back to seize 1 22-21 lead early in the fourth quarter.

That lead lasted all one of play, as on a two-point conversion attempt that could have given the Orange a three-point lead, Loren Johnson intercepted McNabb’s pass and returned it for two points to put the Hokies back in front in a dramatic turn of events. Virginia Tech would extend the lead to 26-22, forcing McNabb to lead a touchdown drive to win the game. With time for just one play remaining from the Hokies’ 13-yard line, McNabb scrambled right before throwing across his body into the end zone. Tight end Step Brominski won a jump ball with the Hokies’ Michael Hawkes, giving Syracuse a walk-off victory and the inside track to the Big East title, which they would lock up two weeks later with a 66-3 rout of Miami.

3. Rutgers 28, Louisville 25 (2006)

Big East football was a Thursday night staple in the 2000s. Perhaps no weeknight affair produced the drama of the 2006 showdown between the third-ranked Cardinals and the 15th-ranked Scarlet Knights, both of whom entered the game with an 8-0 record. After the teams traded touchdowns on a cool night in Piscataway, Louisville ran off 18 straight points to build a 25-7 late in the first half.

The second half belonged to the home team, as two Ray Rice touchdowns runs cut the lead to 25-22 in the third quarter. Jeremy Ito’s 46-yard field goal tied the game with 10 minutes remaining, and it would be Ito again to provide the signature play in Rutgers football history, drilling a 28-yard kick with 13 seconds left for a 28-25 win, costing Louisville a chance at the national title. While Rutgers would drop two of its final three games to finish 10-2, Ito’s kick was the moment that capped one of the most remarkable resurrection projects in the history of college football.

2. Virginia Tech 22, West Virginia 20 (1999)

Johnny Manziel wasn’t the first redshirt freshman quarterback to dazzle the nation with a combination of arm and legs. 14 years ago, Michael Vick burst onto the scene, leading the Hokies into the national title chase for the first time. On the same day No. 2 Penn State was stunned by Minnesota, it appeared as if the third-ranked Hokies’ national title hopes might go up in flames in Morgantown.

With 35 seconds remaining and Virginia Tech trailing 20-19, Vick scrambled toward the sidelines near his own 40-yard line, but made a late decision to turn up field, a gutsy call given the Hokies had no timeouts left. He reached the West Virginia 36-yard line by the time he was forced out of bounds. Three plays later, Shayne Graham’s 44-yard field goal split the Mountaineer Field uprights, preserving Virginia Tech’s perfect season.

1. West Virginia 46, Louisville 44 (3OT) (2005)

This game was part of the quartet of memorable finishes of Oct. 15, 2005, joining Wisconsin’s blocked punt to beat Minnesota, Michigan’s last-second touchdown pass to defeat Penn State, and USC’s “Bush Push” to hold off Notre Dame. The Mountaineers were seemingly left for dead, trailing 24-7 with nine minutes remaining, but a furious rally sparked by two Steve Slaton touchdown runs tied the game at 24-24 with 60 seconds remaining.

Slaton’s coming out party continued in overtime, as two more touchdowns wrapped around Cardinals scores from Mario Urrutia and Michael Bush sent the game to a third extra session. After Slaton’s fifth touchdown run (and sixth total) of the day put the Mountaineers ahead, Pat White connected with Dorrell Jalloh for the two point conversion. Bush would pull the Cardinals within two, but a failed quarterback run by Brian Brohm on the subsequent conversion attempt ended the wildest game in the history of the Big East.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.