Brawl to the finish
MORGANTOWN - If West Virginia and Pitt aren't able to figure out how to play any more of these Backyard Brawls once the schools move to different conferences, at least the last one will go down as a classic.
Not in the sense of terrific, flawless performances, mind you, but for sheer drama it will be hard to beat the 104th renewal of the series.
West Virginia overcame three turnovers, alternately hideous and spectacular special teams play and a 20-7 deficit Friday night, scoring the winning touchdown with 6:10 to play and then turning it over to a sack-happy defense and coming away with a 21-20 win in front of a crowd of 60,932 at Mountaineer Field.
The win keeps alive the Big East title hopes of the Mountaineers (8-3, 4-2 Big East) with a game to play Thursday night at South Florida. West Virginia can clinch a share of the league title with a win at Raymond James Stadium, but in order to earn a BCS bowl berth will need help in the form of two more wins by Cincinnati. The Bearcats play at Syracuse today and host Connecticut in a week.
Pitt (5-6, 3-3) saw its title hopes dashed and needs a win next week against Syracuse just to become bowl eligible.
West Virginia sacked Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri 10 times - five of them on Pitt's final eight plays from scrimmage - after taking its 21-20 lead on Shawne Alston's 1-yard run. Alston had scored from 8 yards out to make it 20-14 in the third quarter.
The final sack came on third-and-24 from the Pitt 30. When Sunseri was stripped of the ball by Bruce Irvin, lineman Ryan Schlieper picked up the ball and tried to run with it but was tackled as the clock ran out, touching off a wild celebration.
"Defensively, it was a dominating performance,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said after becoming the first rookie WVU coach to beat Pitt in his first try since 1903. "But we obviously haven't been dominating at times this year. That's why it's so important to play all three sides of the ball. You've got to feed off each other and we did.''
Indeed, there were plenty of heroes for West Virginia in all phases of the game. On defense, Julian Miller had four of WVU's 10 sacks and on offense Tavon Austin caught 10 passes for 102 yards, Stedman Bailey had a 63-yard touchdown catch and WVU's line even had some surprises with Quinton Spain and converted defensive lineman Curtis Feigt playing the entire second half.
But perhaps the key figure was punter Corey Smith, relegated to second-class status most of the season after losing his job to Mike Molinari after a series of shanked punts. When Molinari shanked his own early against Pitt, Smith replaced him and had four punts of 57, 50, 62 and 60 yards, completely changing both field position and momentum.
"He played a big part in it,'' Holgorsen said. "I give him tremendous credit.''
Smith's last punt might have been his best. Pinned at the 14 with about two minutes to play, WVU had to punt and give Pitt one last chance. Smith boomed a 60-yarder and the Panthers had to start from their own 34. They would get one first down - by a sliver on a fourth-down sneak by Sunseri with 56 seconds to play - but then suffered three straight sacks to end the game.
Before all of that. Pitt was having its way at times. The Panthers took a 14-0 lead in the first quarter through equal parts offensive efficiency and West Virginia time and again shooting itself in the foot. Once it was a penalty that nullified a missed Pitt field goal and then it was another of the Mountaineers' season-long special teams atrocities, the shanked punt.
The first score was a 1-yard run by Zach Brown that came four plays after nose guard Jorge Wight was whistled for an illegal block, presumably for cutting an offensive lineman in order to clear space for defenders rushing and jumping from behind Wright. Wright was also called for an offsides violation when Pitt faced fourth-and-1 near the goal line. It didn't give the Panthers a first down, but made the distance shorter and Pitt converted one play before the touchdown.
The second score was a 6-yard run by Isaac Bennett at the end of just a 52-yard drive. That was set up when Molinari shanked a 22-yard punt out of bounds, at least the fifth shank of the season by either Molinari or Smith. Again, though, Pitt took advantage, driving those 52 yards in five easy plays.
West Virginia appeared to change the momentum completely about five minutes into the second quarter after, of all things, a punt. Smith replaced Molinari for the first time since the LSU game and immediately boomed 57- and 50-yard kicks in his first two attempts.
The defense picked up on the momentum shift and began shutting Pitt down and WVU got one of the scores back when Geno Smith hit Bailey on a 63-yard touchdown. Bailey caught the pass on a skinny post pattern, stiff-armed safety Jarred Holley in the middle of the field and reversed field to score and make it 14-7.
But then it was another punt, this one by Pitt, that changed things again. Austin called for a fair catch on a punt and couldn't get to the short kick. It bounced sideways and into WVU's Ishmael Banks, creating a live ball. Pitt's Andrew Taglianetti fell on it at the WVU 33 and Pitt got a 30-yard Harper field goal out of its to go up 17-7.
WVU had a chance at the end of the half to perhaps get into field goal position after Darwin Cook intercepted a Sunseri pass and ran it back to the Pitt 47, but Geno Smith was sacked two straight times and the clock ran out.
Pitt took advantage of yet another WVU special teams error to add a field goal early in the third quarter. Tavon Austin dropped a punt at his own 16, Shane Gordon fell on it and four plays later Harper kicked a 27-yard field goal to make it 20-7.
But the Mountaineers got that back and more quickly. On the next possession - which began with Pitt kicking the ball out of bounds and setting WVU up at the 40 - Alston scored from the 8 to make it 20-14 with 8:59 to play in the third quarter.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.