PITTSBURGH – Pitt had the ball and most of the yards in the first half, but the Panthers couldn’t hold onto it. West Virginia did, and eventually came away with a 35-10 victory Friday afternoon in the 103rd edition of the Backyard Brawl.
“I can’t tell you enough what a big win that was for West Virginia, for this staff and for me personally,” said Mountaineer coach Bill Stewart, now 27-11 at WVU and 2-1 against Pitt. “To come on the road in the Big East, anytime, is special. To win in a pretty good manner is even more pleasant.”
West Virginia (8-3, 4-2) and Pitt (6-5, 4-2) both remain in the hunt for a Big East title, but the Mountaineers will have the tiebreaker over the Panthers should both teams finish with identical conference records. If UConn (6-4, 3-2) wins out against Cincinnati and USF, the Huskies will get the Big East's BCS bowl berth because it owns tiebreakers over the Panthers and Mountaineers.
West Virginia has one regular season game remaining next Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium against Rutgers (for tickets log onto http://www.wvugame.com
This afternoon, four Pitt turnovers - two in the red zone - led to 28 West Virginia points. West Virginia’s 35 points were nearly as many as it scored the prior three times it has played against Pitt, and it was the most since WVU lit up the scoreboard for 45 in an 18-point victory over the Panthers at Heinz Field in 2006.
Pitt came into this year’s Backyard Brawl a field goal favorite, but West Virginia’s defense asserted itself on the game’s opening possession when Brandon Hogan picked off a Tino Sunseri pass and returned it 53 yards to the West Virginia two. From there fullback Ryan Clarke barreled in to make it a 7-0 West Virginia lead.
Pitt tied it late in the first quarter, moving the ball 59 yards in eight plays to reach the end zone. Sunseri hooked up with Devin Street for 13 yards to the Mountaineer 41, scrambled 18 yards on third and eight to the WVU 21 and then hit Ray Graham out of the backfield for 13 yards to the eight. On Pitt’s next play Sunseri hooked up with Street in the corner of the end zone for an eight-yard TD.
West Virginia’s other first half touchdown was also set up by a turnover when Graham coughed up the ball and it was recovered by Hogan at the Pitt 46. Two plays later, Geno Smith hit Noel Devine out of the backfield for 48 yards to the Pitt two.
“That really gave us a spark when we needed it,” said Stewart.
Tight end Will Johnson completed the drive with a two-yard touchdown reception.
Before Devine’s catch and run, West Virginia’s offense had managed just one first down and 27 total yards. Stewart said he wasn’t happy with the way his defense was performing, and let his nationally ranked unit know about it at halftime.
“They were 8 of 12 (on third downs) at halftime and they had 23 minutes of possession,” said Stewart. “We had the ball 16 plays. I said, ‘My God, fellas, we don’t have a chance. This has got to change.’ I know the score is still pretty close, but you cannot keep an offense just coming and coming and coming because they are going to eventually hit the big play.”
The Mountaineers took control of the game on their opening possession of the third quarter when Smith found Tavon Austin for a 71-yard touchdown catch and run on third and seven. It was West Virginia’s longest scoring play of the season, and was also the longest pass play the Panther defense has given up this year.
“I really was watching Bradley Starks in the corner of my eye along the sideline,” said Stewart of Austin’s long touchdown catch. “I thought he was going to get the ball to Bradley on the post and then all of a sudden her comes that little flash out from the backside and I said, ‘Oh, man!’
“Tavon is just a guy out in space … he’s tough,” Stewart added. “He’s a space guy and he’s a very difficult to get the handcuffs on him, so to speak.”
Austin scored a second touchdown late in the third quarter when he worked his way free in the corner of the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown to put the Mountaineers up by 18, 28-10.
Twice in the second half Pitt gave up the ball on downs, and a mishandled snap by Sunseri with the Panthers at the West Virginia nine gave the ball back to the Mountaineers at the 24.
West Virginia put the game away with an 11-play, 76-yard drive that ate 5:55 off the clock and finished in the end zone when Clarke went in from the two. Eight of West Virginia’s 11 plays came on the ground, but the three throws were big ones – one for 38 yards to Jock Sanders on third and 12 that took the ball to the Pitt 40, a second to Sanders for 11 yards to the Panthers 18 and then another one to Sanders for 13 yards that took the ball to the Pitt two. That set up Clarke’s two-yard plunge.
Clarke’s TD run was West Virginia’s first fourth-quarter touchdown in Big East play this season.
West Virginia had a chance to tack on seven more late in the game, the Mountaineers actually getting to the Pitt two on a Shawne Alston 19-yard run, but the play was brought back to Pitt’s 12 after Eddie Davis was called for holding.
Stewart chose to run the ball four straight times up the middle instead of going for another touchdown.
Smith only tried 12 passes, completing nine, for 212 yards and three touchdowns. Most of those went to Sanders and Austin, who caught two passes for 83 yards, and Sanders, who finished with four catches for 70 yards. Sanders is now the all-time leading pass catcher in WVU history with 195 career receptions.
Alston led West Virginia with 71 yards on 16 carries and now shows 182 yards in West Virginia’s last three wins against Cincinnati, Louisville and Pitt. Clarke added 28 yards and two touchdowns on six carries.
“We wanted to run Ryan Clarke and Shawne Alston and that’s what we did today,” said Stewart. “And we did it with option.”
Sunseri completed 26-of-48 passes for 284 yards, but Pitt was held to just 78 yards on the ground.
Pitt completes its regular season next week against Cincinnati.