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The Backyard Brawl

by David Finoli


Photo courtesy of The Smoking Musket.


Look, I get it. The reason the Backyard Brawl isn’t really a thing anymore: The two teams that made the rivalry special, Pitt and WVU, left the Big East and went their separate ways, the Panthers to the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Mountaineers to the Big 12. With football as the two schools’ primary sports, they had no choice. The Big East football conference had broken apart and if they wanted their programs to still be relevant, the move was necessary. The shame was that with minimal non-conference games available, the two schools would no longer meet on a yearly basis.


Prior to last year, the last contest between the two as conference foes was a thrilling 21-20 victory by WVU in 2011, a win that propelled the Mounties to their final Big East championship and a spot in the Orange Bowl. It was a game where the Panthers blew a 10-point lead and all but ended the series with WVU winning the final three contests, but Pitt holding an overall 61-40-3 advantage.


As the years had passed without the Backyard Brawl being a reality, that was becoming OK with me. I was one of the few Panther faithful that openly rooted for the nearby Mountaineers as my team in the Big 12. I had mistakenly thought the emotion between the two schools was gone.


How could you hate someone you never played?


When I attended an Iowa State-WVU contest at Milan Puskar Stadium, a chant broke out in the sold-out crowd... “Eat Sh*t, Pitt, Eat Sh*t, Pitt, Eat Sh*t, Pitt.” I was dumbfounded as this chant kept on going. I asked one of the fans why this chant was going on since the two schools hadn’t met in years, and they just muttered that they hated those SOB’s (the real comment has been hidden to protect the innocent).


When I came home, I was relating the story to some friends, who reiterated something similar—some vile comments toward the school 90 minutes south of the ‘Burgh. It was at that point that I really got the rivalry, the emotion and the hatred between the two fan bases, and then was thrilled in 2015 when the two schools decided to reignite it when they signed an agreement to play for four consecutive seasons between 2022-2025, then 2029-2032.


Any doubts I may have had on the intensity of the rivalry ended on the evening of a nationally televised contest, September 1, 2022, at Acrisure Stadium (or Heinz Field if you just can’t get used to the new name). A Pittsburgh sporting event record 70,622 showed up for the first meeting in 11 years. ESPN created controversy by claiming WVU fans were in the majority of the crowd in the stadium. I was there and that was incorrect. Pitt was extremely well represented.


And it was a comment that infuriated Panther coach, Pat Narduzzi, who excoriated an ESPN post-game host on national TV for the faulty and presumptive statement. Earning praise from the Pitt loyalists, “the Duzz” refused to let him off the hook until the host relented—admitting the mistake.


The game was a classic, the lead changing back and forth seven times as the visitors were driving late in the game of a 31-31 tie. With the favored Panthers facing a possible upset, Pitt’s M.J. Devonshire picked off a pass at the 44 and ran it in for a 56-yard interception return and a 38-31 advantage with 2:58 left. The Mountaineers drove again with time running out, but the Panther defense held on for the win. It was a thrilling contest that was representative of just how special the rivalry was.


For those who may need a refresher before the kickoff of the next installment of the Backyard Brawl in Morgantown in September, here’s an historical list of the best three wins for Pitt and WVU in this bitter rivalry:


WEST VIRGINIA’S BEST THREE WINS


1975- Pitt was looking to make progress under coach, Johnny Majors, in his third season at the helm and the Mountaineers were looking to stunt their growth. The Panthers had just crushed Syracuse, which vaulted them back into the top 20 at number 20. With a win, they’d have momentum going into their final two contests against nationally ranked Notre Dame and Penn State. Without it, there was the possibility of a 6-5 season which would just about put Pitt back at square one in their latest rebuilding effort.


The Mountaineers had led 14-7 when Matt Cavanaugh tossed a nine-yard pass to Tony Dorsett to tie the score. The Panthers were driving for a game winning field goal by Carson Long when the Pitt quarterback tossed an interception. WVU would fumble deep in the visitor’s territory and the Panthers once again drove down the field. Cavanaugh lost track of downs when he was going for a play on fourth down. Coach Joe Avezzano went on to the field to stop the play and incurred an unsportsmanlike penalty. Pitt did punt and the Mountaineers took over on the 48. They drove down to the 22 where walk-on kicker, Bill McKenzie, knocked through a 38-yard field goal as time ran out to give WVU the upset 17-14 victory.


Pitt luckily would upset Notre Dame the next week to secure a bowl bid, which catapulted them to the 1976 national championship, but on this day the sellout crowd at old Mountaineer Field rushed onto the field after the dramatic victory as West Virginia was victorious in this version of the Backyard Brawl.


1965- So what would make a game in 1965 between the two schools when neither were particularly good, especially the Panthers, appear on this list? Perhaps it was the up and down record setting offenses that catapulted this game into one of the highest scoring affairs in NCAA history at the time as the Mountaineers set many school records in a 63-48 romp.


WVU dominated the stats with running backs, Garrett Ford and Dick Leftridge, running for 198 and 129 yards respectively while Mountaineer quarterback, Alan McCune, threw for a record 320 yards and five touchdowns in the affair. Overall, they set the following school records. Highest attended game at old Mountaineer Field with 35, 000 there, highest score allowed by a losing opponent with 48, 624 of total offense, 320 yards passing in a game, touchdown passes in a game, rushing yards in a quarter (133 by Ford), and 17 consecutive extra points by Chuck Kinder. It was an impressive afternoon to be sure but as dominant as they were, they couldn’t seem to shake the visitors.

Pitt came back down 21-0 to tie the score and then again tying it at 42 apiece. With the score 49-48 WVU, Ford scored on a 59-yard pass from McCune, then from three-yards out on a run to give the now 3-0 Mountaineers the 62-48 win.


It might not have been a memorable one that led to an incredible season, with Pitt losing five of their next six games to finish at 3-7 and WVU coming up on the wrong end of three of their next four to end a once promising campaign at 6-4, but in a day where offensive numbers like this were rarely seen, it was truly one for the ages.


2009- Two years earlier, the Panthers killed WVU's national championship hopes with a 13-9 victory at Mountaineer Field. The two teams returned to Morgantown the day after Thanksgiving in 2009 and Pitt was now the team on the top of the heap. They came into this game with a 9-1 mark, needing a win over the underdog Mountaineers to secure the Big East championship and the major bowl bid that came with it. WVU wanted revenge and they would have it on this evening.


Pitt quarterback, Bill Stull, was having a great season, but on this night, threw two interceptions that led to West Virginia scores. Freshman kicker, Tyler Bitancurt, notched four field goals including one from 43-yards out as time expired while running back, Noel Devine, rambled for 88 of his 134 yards on a late third quarter touchdown in the upset 19-16 victory. Dion Lewis had a game high 155 yards for Pitt, but it wasn’t enough as the Panthers went on to lose to Cincinnati the next week and with it what seemed like a certain Big East title before this Backyard Brawl upset.


PITT’S BEST THREE WINS


1970- Most Pitt fans would tell you that the 13-9, 2007 victory was the greatest win for the Panthers in the rivalry. It certainly was impressive and one of the school’s all-time greatest victories. In fact, in my book, Classic ‘Burgh: The 50 greatest Collegiate Games in Pittsburgh Sports History, I have it rated higher. In retrospect, I may have been wrong. In looking at Pitt’s dramatic 36-35 win on October 17, 1970 over the Mountaineers, it may have been the Panthers' seminal moment in the rivalry.


WVU was led by one of the greatest coaches ever to take the sidelines in college football history, Bobby Bowden. Despite the fact Pitt came into the contest with a 3-1 mark, Bowden’s team was having his way with the Panther defense and shot out to a 35-8 halftime lead. "Insurmountable," you say? Not for this Pitt squad.


Quarterback Dave Havern—who sat out the 1969 campaign with mononucleosis, lost his job to John Hogan before taking it back after a Hogan injury—was spectacular in the second half. Bowden switched his offense to a more conservative inside power game, most likely in an effort not to completely humiliate Pitt. It would be a mistake he claimed he'd never make again.


The Panthers scored twice in the third quarter with two 2-point conversions to cut the huge advantage to a mere 11 points. When fullback Tony Esposito ended a 70-yard drive with a one-yard TD run, it was now 35-30. The home team defense became impenetrable as whatever momentum the Mounties had was now gone. Pitt took the ball over once again with time running out and went through the WVU defense with ease.

They were doing nothing but running right through the Mountaineer front line until they got to the five with a minute left. Havern pulled a play fake then found a wide-open Dave Pilconis in the endzone for the winning score in a dramatic 36-35 comeback win that would vault the now 4-1 Panthers into the top 20.


2007- Ok, Ok, I know everyone at Pitt says this is the greatest moment for Panther fans in the Brawl, and it was pretty spectacular. Here is how the situation set up. West Virginia was undefeated while Pitt stood at a disappointing 4-7. With a win at Mountaineer Field, WVU would play for their first national championship, the Panthers had nothing to play for but a shot at crushing their hopes and dreams. For coach, Dave Wannstedt, that’s all he needed.


While Pitt was playing a bend but don’t break defense, their offense was completely inept early on. The Mountaineers were dominant but couldn’t get into the endzone, while their great kicker, Pat McAfee, couldn’t make an easy field goal, missing two earlier in the game. A 74-yard drive by the heavy favorites would finally give them the lead, but instead of a rout, it was only 7-0. A 15-yard personal foul penalty late in the half set up a Connor Lee 48-yard field goal as the two teams went into the locker room at the half with the underdogs only down by 4.


Pitt was now playing on par with the Mountaineers and LeSean McCoy was having the game of his life with 148 yards. He was leading a now-moving Panther offense and after quarterback, Pat Bostick, scored from one-yard out and Lee hit a second field goal (this one from 18-yards), the visitors were stunningly up 13-7.


Coach Rich Rodriguez didn’t trust McAfee and his offense, while in great position, couldn’t get back into the endzone and kept turning the ball back over to Pitt. Finally, after getting to the Panther 28, quarterback, Pat White, threw an incompletion on fourth down with only 1:34 left. With little time remaining and not wanting to risk a blocked punt, Pitt punter, Dave Brytus, took the snap and ran out of the endzone for a safety for a remarkable 13-9 victory.


I know, I know, it was exciting. Maybe we can make the two games 1A and 1B.


1955- Even though both teams were ranked, Pitt at 17 and WVU at number 6, the two teams came into Pitt Stadium with the Mountaineers as prohibitive favorites with a 7-0 mark compared to the home team’s 5-3 record. Had they defeated the Panthers, they seemingly had a Sugar Bowl bid in their pockets. With everything on the line, Pitt was at their best, West Virginia was not.


Joe Walton caught a six-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, putting Pitt up 7-0. Then as the Mountaineers looked as if they were going to tie the score, John Paluck, defensive end, began the game of his life almost single handedly stopping the visitors to give the home team a 7-0 lead at the half. Remarkably, the game was all but over at that time. The Panthers added 12 more points in the third quarter led by two fumble recoveries by Paluck and Walton, and a six-yard run by third-string quarterback Darrell Lewis with 1:36 left to play to give the underdog Panthers a dominant 26-7 victory.

With the win, the tables were turned. Pitt, in fact, got the Sugar Bowl bid that was meant for WVU, and the Mountaineers stayed at home for the holidays with no bowl bid in hand.

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