PITTSBURGH - Jock Sanders said it would happen nearly four months ago. When the time came to put up or shut up, West Virginia's defense did the heavy lifting and the offense managed to carry its weight, too.
After surviving a bizarre first half in which the Mountaineers somehow got out of their own way long enough to take a 14-7 lead, West Virginia dominated old rival Pitt in the second half and went on to a convincing 35-10 win in Friday's chilly 103rd Backyard Brawl.
Now for WVU, it's time to root for Cincinnati today - or South Florida in a week - to knock off Connecticut. If that happens West Virginia (8-3 overall, 4-2 Big East) will be in position to earn the Big East's automatic BCS bowl berth with a win next weekend over free-falling Rutgers.
This from a team that less than a month ago was 1-2 in the Big East and all but written off. But Sanders, who in early August was incensed that Pitt was chosen by the league's coaches to win the conference, never wavered.
"We knew we were the best team before the season started,'' said Sanders, who along the way Friday caught four passes for 70 yards and broke David Saunders' school record for career receptions. "We just needed to back it up.
"Hands down, yes [we are the best team in the league]. We had a couple of stumbles, that's all.''
It is those stumbles, of course, that now put the Mountaineers in the precarious position of having to scoreboard-watch to see if they have a chance to earn the BCS bowl berth, almost certainly the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl. If Connecticut (6-4, 3-2) wins out, the Huskies trump both Pitt (6-5, 4-2) and WVU in the BCS tiebreakers because they beat both.
"Oh, I'll be watching every minute of it,'' linebacker J.T. Thomas said of today's noon game between UConn and Cincinnati in East Hartford, Conn. The Huskies also play at South Florida a week from today.
For now, though, the Mountaineers will bask in the glow of a Backyard Brawl that didn't come down to the final seconds for the first time in four years. Pitt had won two of those nail-biters, including the 13-9 win in 2007 that knocked WVU out of the national championship game. West Virginia won last year on Tyler Bitancurt's walk-off field goal.
"It feels even better to really, really beat them,'' said Thomas. "We finally put our foot down on them.''
Indeed, but it took a while, and there were times throughout most of the first half when it appeared that any rout on this day would go in the other direction. In the first half, Pitt was so dominant that the Panthers had almost unfathomable edges in plays (45-16), time of possession (22:34-7:26), total yards (205-75) and rushing yards (76-16). With the exception of one play, the Panthers outgained West Virginia through the air 129-11 before halftime.
None of that mattered, though, because of three Pitt turnovers and that one WVU pass play. The first turnover was Brandon Hogan's first-series interception and return to the Pitt 2, which set up Ryan Clarke's 2-yard run and a 7-0 West Virginia lead.
The second turnover didn't produce and points, but it saved some. Terrence Garvin's fumble return to near midfield came after Pitt had gotten the ball inside the Mountaineer 20 before Dion Lewis coughed it up.
The last turnover, a Ray Graham fumble near midfield that Hogan recovered, set up Noel Devine's 48-yard catch and run of a swing pass that put the ball at the Pitt 2. Smith hit tight end Will Johnson all alone in the end zone on a play-action pass to break a 7-all tie.