By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
November 26, 2009
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The Pitt football program received a much needed transfusion of life in Morgantown, W.Va., on Dec. 1, 2007. Of course that was the date Pitt pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in the long 101-game history of the Backyard Brawl.
||A lasting image from the 2007 Backyard Brawl in Morgantown. West Virginia's Larry Williams hangs his head in disappointment following the Mountaineers' 13-9 loss to Pitt that cost them the opportunity to play in the national championship game.
West Virginians, watching their second-ranked Mountaineers destroy Connecticut 66-21 the week before, were already making plans to face Ohio State in the national championship game.
Pitt was simply playing out another losing season.
But the Panthers found inspiration during a rocky bus ride to Milan Puskar Stadium, so the story goes in Pittsburgh, and they tripped up West Virginia 13-9 in a game that will forever be talked about in these parts.
“I think that win, when you look back on it,” says Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, “… it gave us life. That would be the way that I would classify it.”
For West Virginians, every aspect of that game remains classified.
“I don’t want remember anything about it,” said West Virginia defensive tackle Chris Neild. “It is completely erased from my memory.”
Wannstedt remembers the game about as clearly as the birth of a child. To most Panther supporters, that victory in Morgantown represented the rebirth of the Pitt football program. On that night the wolves quit howling at Dave Wannstedt.
Wannstedt remembers walking out onto the field and seeing a large number of recruits standing over on West Virginia’s sideline – players he was also targeting.
“I looked over and could see all of these kids that we were recruiting and that they were recruiting,” Wannstedt said earlier this week. “Within 10-14 days (after the game) we got eight commitments. Two or three of those kids that were right there committed with us.”
Several of those prospects standing on the West Virginia sidelines will be making their first trip back to Morgantown in Pitt Panther jerseys, along with the 17 seniors that are listed on Pitt’s two-deep roster. Nine of those seniors are on a defense ranked 21st in the country allowing just 314.7 yards per game.
It’s a defense – particularly a front four consisting of Jabaal Sheard, Mick Williams, Gus Mustakas and Greg Romeus – that has Panther fans once again talking about some of the great Pitt defenses of the past.
“This is five years in the works,” said West Virginia coach Bill Stewart of Pitt’s resurgence. “It’s five years of getting better each year and adding to the repertoire. To me, I see many seniors on this two-deep, and that has been five years in the making. It’s going to be a real challenge for us.”
The one Pitt senior that has demonstrated the biggest turnaround is quarterback Bill Stull. He has passed for more than 200 yards seven times this year and has thrown at least one TD pass in all 10 games. This week, Stull ranks fourth nationally in passing efficiency (159.37 rating). Stull also leads the Big East in passing yards (2,115).
“Bill Stull is a great example of Proverbs 24:16 – you just have to keep rising,” said Stewart. “Every time you get knocked down to your knees, you just have to get back up. For him to press on – I can only say good things about him.”
Once booed unmercifully by Panther fans (his parents still refuse to sit in the stands to watch Panther home games), Stull has developed into a leading candidate for Big East player of the year honors. A lot of the credit for Stull’s development has to go to first-year offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, son of former West Virginia coach Frank Cignetti Sr.
The transformation in Pitt’s offense is all the more remarkable when considering the fact that the Panthers failed to score a single point in their miserable bowl game loss last year to Oregon State.
Frank Cignetti has certainly changed that.
Stull’s development and the discovery of lightly recruited true freshman tailback Dion Lewis, a 5-foot-8, 195-pounder with game changing ability, has made Pitt one of the most well balanced football teams in the Big East. Lewis is fourth nationally in rushing averaging 129.1 yards per game and gives the Panthers a reliable ball carrier to control the clock and play to Pitt’s stout defense.
And when defenses begin to pay too much attention to Lewis and the Panther running game, that’s when Stull uses the play action pass to throw the ball downfield to Jonathan Baldwin, Dorin Dickerson and Oderick Turner. All three stand taller than 6-feet-2 and weigh more than 200 pounds. In fact, Dickerson and Baldwin are both in the 230-pound range.
Dickerson leads the team in catches (43) and touchdowns (10), while Baldwin is averaging 21 yards per catch with five 100-yard receiving games so far this year. Turner gives Stull a solid third option in the passing game with 21 catches for 227 yards and a touchdown.
“They control the ball, they throw when they have to, they run the tailback, their quarterback doesn’t make mistakes and their defense and their kicking game has been awesome as well,” said Stewart.
The mistakes - Wannstedt believes the miscues made by West Virginia the previous two years are what have helped push the balance in Pitt’s favor.
“In games like this, I would be willing to bet that it wasn’t the team that made the greatest plays, but the team that made the fewest amount of bad plays that won the game,” he explained. “When you think of our game last year (19-15 Panther victory) we played sound; we played good on defense. We came up with two turnovers on defense at the end of the game.
“When you think of the game two years ago down there, it was a missed field goal, a fumbled kickoff, Pat White fumbling the ball. All of those things, if you add up the turnovers and the mistakes, that was probably more of a difference than who made more great plays.”
Bill Stewart agrees.
“I learned a long time ago that in big games, fundamentals are the key,” he said. “What you do in games like this are you tie the laces a little bit tighter, strap your pads down a little bit tighter and you go out there and play to the best of your ability.”
It’s another Backyard Brawl Friday night under the lights at Milan Puskar Stadium. Combat begins at 7 p.m.