WVU players redeem, give fans something to remember
MORGANTOWN - If Friday night's game was the end of the Pittsburgh-West Virginia series, it certainly went out in style.
There have been many wonderful games, many heart-stopping moments, in the 104 games of what has become known as the "Backyard Brawl." There was the stunning WVU loss in Game 100 when the Mountaineers were a step from the national championship.
But, if this is it for the series, it went out in appropriate style. Wild. And, for West Virginia, wonderful.
It was a 21-20 Mountaineer victory before a rowdy crowd of 60,932 at Milan Puskar Stadium.
There were so many storylines heading into the game. Mountaineer head coach Dana Holgorsen had his chippy rivalry with Pitt coach Todd Graham. It was Senior Night for the West Virginia players. There were all those former Rich Rodriguez assistants standing on the Panther sideline, including Graham. Since Rodriguez left, WVU has been trying to recapture the magic which was conjured by some of those guys working for Graham.
Of course there was the Big East/BCS situation. The Mountaineers won their eighth game on Friday, but, earlier in the day, Louisville defeated South Florida. That puts the Cardinals in the prime BCS position, but the deal isn't sealed. West Virginia must win its last game against USF and cheer for Cincinnati.
There were records to be broken, which Mountaineer players broke.
But in a fashion typical of a Brawl, those storylines were swept away as if thrown in the Monongahela River.
It turned crazy. It fell on the players. And those players made Holgorsen the first first-year Mountaineer coach to defeat Pitt since H.E. Trout in 1903.
Yes, H.E. Trout.
"That was fun," Holgorsen said afterward.
And it was different. Who would have predicted the most popular Mountaineer after this game would be a backup punter?
Indeed, though, Corey Smith entered the game after starter Mike Molinari shanked one too many punts and bombed a punt 57 yards to the loud cheers of the partisan crowd. A personal foul on the Panthers pushed them back to their own 10. At the time, Pitt led 14-0.
Know that Smith, an Inwood native who replaced a Parkersburg native, single-handedly won the game. But understand that in a game with 18 punts, Smith finished with a 57.2 yard average, with a long of 62, on four punts.
"Special-teams-wise," Holgorsen said, "you've got to give Corey credit."
Understand that there were more ugly special teams moments for the Mountaineers than pretty ones. There were the shanks. Ishmael Banks let a punt hit him, then watched as Andrew Taglianetti recovered, giving the Panthers a first down at the WVU 33. Tavon Austin muffed a punt and Pitt's Shane Gordon jumped on it. Both muffs led to Pitt field goals. At one point, the WVU fans cheered when Devon Brown, replacing Austin as the punt returner, made a clean fair catch.
But in this one, it seemed as if all were redeemed.
In the first half, for instance, West Virginia had minus two yards rushing. Yet the Mountaineers finished with 113 net rushing yards. It's certainly nothing to brag about, but Dustin Garrison finished with 55 yards and Shawne Alston had 34 and a pair of scores. It was what the Mountaineers needed to complement the passing of record-setting WVU quarterback Geno Smith, who finished with 244 yards passing.
The Mountaineer defense also redeemed itself.
In the first half, West Virginia allowed 216 yards, which projected to 432 by game's end. If you check the final stat book, though, you'll see the Panthers finished with 296 yards. That's but 80 yards in the second half. The defense held Pitt to 30 rushing yards.
"Defensively, we played tremendous [in the second half]," Holgorsen said.
One has to put it in perspective. Pittsburgh is playing without its star running back, Ray Graham. Yet WVU's defense was still stellar overall in the second half. At times it felt like it was Kroger, there were so many sacks. The Mountaineers ended with a whopping 10, four by Julian Miller.
And many of those sacks were timely. Very. On third-and-five late, there was Bruce Irvin to snuff the series. Pitt would only have one more series.
Perhaps in the grand scheme of college football, Friday night's game won't mean much. Examining the Big East race isn't exactly like that of the SEC, which dominates the top of the national championship talk.
Heck, the Big East might end up with Louisville taking the BCS berth. That's a team that lost to FIU and Marshall.
But Friday's game was significant to those in the Mountain State. It was significant to those in the Keystone State.
It was special to Holgorsen, who still has to work on his team's special teams and discipline, but has certainly improved the team's enthusiasm.
"We had a tremendous amount of excitement on the sideline in the second half and didn't quit," said the Mountaineer coach. Later he gave the crowd credit. "We were playing off the crowd in the second half."
But maybe he hit the proverbial nail with another quote.
"We're excited about winning," he said. "This meant a lot to our seniors. They will remember this for a long time."
And - if this was indeed the final Backyard Brawl - so will Mountaineer fans.