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The Times Duke Football Beat Bobby Bowden’s Teams, Part II

Before Bobby Bowden became a legend, Duke bested his West Virginia teams twice

NFL Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony
CANTON, OHIO - AUGUST 08: A view of a screen honoring Bobby Bowden during the NFL Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony at Tom Benson Hall Of Fame Stadium on August 08, 2021 in Canton, Ohio.
Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Tom Harp was in his last year at Duke in 1970, although no one knew it at the time. Quarterback Leo Hart and wide receiver Wes Chesson were seniors in 1970, one of the nation’s best pass-catch combinations. Running back Steve Jones, linebacker Dick Biddle and defensive backs Ernie Jackson and Rich Searl were as good as anything the ACC had to offer.

Duke lost a 21-19 heart-breaker to Florida to open the season but rebounded with wins over Maryland and Virginia. Duke was chronically over-scheduled in those days and Duke went up to Columbus and absorbed a 34-10 loss to top-ranked Ohio State.

Bowden was in his first year at West Virginia. West Virginia finished 10-1 in 1969 and opened the season ranked 20th. Jim Carlen left for Texas Tech following that season, opening the door for the 40-year-old Bowden. The independent Mountaineers opened with wins over William and Mary, Richmond, VMI and Indiana and were ranked 11th in the AP poll when they hosted Duke on October 10.

It was homecoming in Morgantown.

And it was wet. Steady rain wet. Wet enough for Harp to deep-six his potent passing game and try to beat West Virginia on the ground.

It didn’t look good early. WVU used up eight minutes on a 19-play, 81-yard touchdown drive to take a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.

But the home team lost their best running back to an injury on that drive. Pete Wood would not return.

Duke answered. Jones returned the ensuing kickoff to the Duke 44 and Duke used 18 plays on the tying drive. Jones did much of the work but Brad Evans got it in the end zone, from three yards out.

West Virginia returned the kickoff to midfield. But Searl intercepted Mike Sherwood at the Duke 20 and returned it to the Duke 44. Five running plays later Jones took it in from five yards out.

David Pugh’s PAT made it 14-7 and the two teams took that into intermission after Searl picked up his second interception right before halftime.

Late in the third quarter West Virginia marched from their own 37 yard line to the shadow of the Duke goal line. The home team had third and one at the Duke three. Quarterback Sherwood was stuffed on a keeper. Bowden went for it on fourth down and tailback Ed Williams met the same fate.

Biddle was the key to Duke’s goal-line stand. There was an adage in those days that the best linebackers were mobile, agile and hostile. A knee injury had robbed Biddle of some of his mobile and agile but none of his hostile. The man loved to hit people. When his body cooperated Biddle was as good a linebacker as Duke has ever had. His body cooperated that day. He ended with 22 tackles, 10 solo.

After an exchange of punts—full credit to Lindsey Nelson—Duke took over at their 19. Jones was augmented on this scoring drive by running back Bill Thompson and some timely passing by Hart.

Twelve plays after the time-consuming drive started Jones plowed in from the four-yard line.

Pugh’s PAT made it 21-7.

Sherwood led a TD drive for West Virginia. A two-point conversion failed and it was 21-13.

Duke drove deep into West Virginia territory one more time. But a 29-yard field-goal attempt never materialized after a botched snap, leaving Duke up by eight.

It could have been a disaster. But the Duke defense had this one under control and West Virginia never threatened. The final was 21-13.

Unlike so many wins during Harp and Hart’s time together, Duke didn’t win with a flurry of passes. But Hart was 7 for 10 on the day, for 82 yards. He connected on all five of his second-half passes.

Jones led Duke with three receptions, for 41 yards. Chesson had two catches.

“I usually like to throw at least 20 passes a game,” Hart said following the game. “But I thought we might as well keep running considering our success. They were playing outside, so we simply ran inside, mostly straight, off-tackle plays. There was a little bit of bad footing and the ball was extremely wet.”

Jones picked up 98 yards on 22 carries, Thompson 93 on 23 carries.

Williams rushed for 99 yards for West Virginia. Duke had a 318 to 273 yards edge in total offense. Duke fumbled six times in the slop but lost only one. That goal-line stand and Searl’s two interceptions proved to be the difference makers.

This was the only time Tom Harp defeated a ranked team during his time at Duke.

There was an interesting West Virginia sidebar. West Virginia played Pittsburgh the following week, arguably their biggest rivalry. West Virginia led 35-8 at the half. Bowden decided to sit on the lead in the second half and Pitt came back to win 36-35. Bowden always said that after this game he decided to never again sit on a lead.