MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Dana Holgorsen was hired last December to light up the scoreboard, but tonight it was the Mountaineer defense that came up big in the second half of West Virginia's 21-20 victory over Pitt at Milan Puskar Stadium.
Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel’s young and improving unit sacked Tino Sunseri 10 times, including four times on Pitt’s final possession, to preserve a memorable one point come-from-behind victory Friday night in what might turn out to be the final Backyard Brawl played for a while.
The Panthers revealed in September that they were leaving the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference, and a month later, West Virginia announced its departure to the Big 12, putting in jeopardy the continuation of college football’s 14th-longest series in duration that dates back to 1895.
The second half defensive effort the Mountaineers put up tonight in the 104th edition of the game would have made all of those old-school West Virginia coaches proud.
“They did a tremendous job, especially after turnovers, going right back out after they’d stopped them and holding them to field goals,” said Holgorsen of WVU’s defense.
Pitt was held to just 80 second-half yards and only three points – those coming on Tavon Austin’s muffed punt – enabling WVU to overcome a 17-7 halftime deficit and post its 15th victory over Pitt in the last 22 Backyard Brawls. It is also the first time since 1903 that a first-year West Virginia coach has won the Pitt game since H.E. Trout did it in 1903 when Pitt was known as Western University of Pennsylvania.
“It was fun,” said Holgorsen of his first Backyard Brawl. “We fed off the crowd tonight.”
Tonight, all 20 of Pitt’s points were a result of West Virginia special teams miscues. Pitt’s first touchdown drive came after Jorge Wright was called for an illegal block on Kevin Harper’s missed 38-yard field goal, leading to Zach Brown’s 1-yard touchdown run.
Later in the first quarter, a shanked Mike Molinari punt gave the Panthers the ball their own 48 and Pitt was able to turn that into an Isaac Bennett 6-yard touchdown run and a 14-0 Panther lead.
A third special teams miscue, this one coming after Stedman Bailey’s electrifying 63-yard touchdown catch, once again gave Pitt a two-possession lead with 2:14 remaining in the first half. Austin failed to catch Matt Yoklic’s punt and the bouncing ball hit blocker Ishmael Banks in the back at the WVU 33, where it was recovered by Andrew Taglianetti and that led to Harper’s 30-yard field goal.
By halftime, Pitt’s offense had outgained West Virginia, 216-141, and the Mountaineers ended the half with back-to-back sacks after Darwin Cook picked off Sunseri at WVU 32 and returned the ball 21 yards to the Panther 47.
“We were moving the ball and we knew we had to run the ball and limit the plays,” said Pitt coach Todd Graham.
After Pitt extended its lead to 20-7, West Virginia mounted a seven-play, 60-yard drive that ended in the end zone when Shawne Alston bulled in from the 8. Aiding West Virginia's drive was Pitt's kickoff that traveled out of bounds, giving the Mountaineers the football at the 40. Forty four of West Virginia’s 60-yard drive came on the ground, including 14 yards by Dustin Garrison to take the ball to the Pitt 43, and an Alston 11-yard run that moved the ball to the Pitt 24.
Those two runs gave quarterback Geno Smith enough space to find Tyler Urban over the middle for 16 yards to the Pitt 8, setting up Alston’s first TD run.
Midway through the fourth quarter, after forcing Yoklic to punt (one of 10 for the game), the Mountaineers took over at their own 17 with 9:27 showing on the clock.
Right away, Smith got West Virginia out of the hole with a 24-yard completion to Austin, moving the ball to the Pitt 41, and then later, on third and inches at the Pitt 19, Holgorsen tried a sideline pass to Ivan McCartney that resulted in a five-yard loss back to the Pitt 24.
Holgorsen ran down the clock to 7:05 where he called timeout to get organized for a fourth-and-six play. What he came up with was a pass to Austin for nine yards to the Pitt 15 to keep the drive alive.
“We talked about it, and we just felt we needed to roll the dice and score,” said Holgorsen. “It was one of those calls that can go either way.”
After the Austin first down catch, immediately Holgorsen went to the hurry up, catching Pitt off guard with an 11-yard Garrison run to the Pitt 4. Two plays later, another quick run called by Holgorsen allowed Alston to score from the 1 standing up. Tyler Bitancurt’s PAT gave West Virginia a 21-20 with 6:10 still showing on the clock.
Twice, with Pitt needing only a field goal to retake the lead, the West Virginia defense came up big.
After Sunseri picked up a first down on third and nine, the QB finding Bennett out of the backfield for 12 yards to the Pitt 36, Bruce Irvin and Will Clarke were able to sack Sunseri for a loss of eight yards back to the Pitt 46 on third-and-five play, forcing Graham to punt the ball back to West Virginia with 2:30 on the clock and still possessing two timeouts.
The Mountaineers took over at its own six and needed only one first down to put the game on ice, but they couldn’t get it, although Pitt did use its remaining two timeouts. Making things more difficult was Austin’s decision to run out of bounds on a jet sweep to the near side of the field, stopping the clock with two minutes and forcing the Mountaineers to defend at least an additional 30 seconds of time.
West Virginia punter Corey Smith, who replaced Molinari in the first half, got off a 60-yard punt that took Mike Shanahan all the way back to the 26, and Wes Tonkery was able to haul him down at the Pitt 34 (Smith averaged 57.2 yards for his four punts on the evening).
On first and 10, Sunseri was sacked for a loss of two by Julian Miller and then Sunseri’s 14-yard pass along the near sideline to Devin Street at the 46 was ruled complete on the field, but was later overturned by the replay official, bringing up a third and 12.
Sunseri located Bennett out of the backfield for 11 yards to Pitt 43, presenting the Panthers with a fourth and one at the 43. Sunseri quickly tried a sneak and barely got the first down by the nose of the ball, giving the Panthers a new set of downs with 56 seconds still showing on the clock.
At the Pitt 44, Sunseri was sacked by Miller for an eight-yard loss back to the 36, and then on second and 18, he was called for intentional grounding when linebacker Najee Goode got to him at the WVU 30. By rule, 10 seconds were run off the clock, giving the Panthers only 37 seconds left to try and get into position to try a field goal.
With it now third and 24 from the 30, Bruce Irvin got to Sunseri again, stripped the ball out of his arms, and Pitt lineman Ryan Schlieper picked it up and ran 18 yards to the 40 where he was tackled by Miller to end the game.
It was the fifth sack allowed by Pitt’s offensive line in its final eight plays.
“The theme has been play with as much energy as you can possibly muster and get excited when good things happen, and when bad things don’t go the way you want them to go, you don’t give up,” said Holgorsen. “We didn’t quit; there were some things that didn’t happen offensively and we could have quit, but we didn’t.”
Smith finished the game completing 22-of-31 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown (the 14th consecutive game he has thrown at least one TD pass dating back to last year), including 102 yards to Austin, but it was West Virginia’s running game that was the difference.
After putting up minus-2 yards on the ground at halftime, West Virginia ran for 115 yards in the second half – 54 of those coming from Garrison and 29 from Alston; Garrison finished the game with 55 yards on 11 attempts while Alston added 34 yards on 11 tries.
Bailey totaled 80 yards on three catches to give him 1,117 receiving yards for the season to top David Saunders’ 15-year record of 1,043 yards produced in 1996.
Smith also became West Virginia’s school single-season record holder in attempts (448), completions (291) and passing yards (3,741).
West Virginia finished the game with 357 yards, which was a season low for a full game (the Mountaineers had 291 yards in three quarters of action against Marshall).
“Our defense was stellar against probably the best offense we have faced this season,” said Graham.
Sunseri ended the game completing 12-of-23 passes for 137 yards with one interception. Bennett led Pitt with 69 yards on 16 carries, while Brown added 67 yards on 15 carries.
Of West Virginia’s 10 sacks – the most by a Mountaineer defense since getting 12 against Idaho in 2000 – four came from Miller, who now shows six for the season and 27 ½ for his career. Irvin was credited with 1 ½ sacks, giving him seven for the year and 21 in only two seasons at WVU.
The Mountaineer defense has produced 15 sacks in their last two games against Pitt and Cincinnati after managing just 11 in their first nine games.
“You can’t take sacks,” said Graham, who coached two Backyard Brawls as a West Virginia assistant coach on Rich Rodriguez’s staff in 2001 and 2002. “We sat there and took one right after another. I give them credit – they executed there and we didn’t.”
An announced crowd of 60,932 attended tonight's game.
West Virginia (8-3) keeps its Big East championship and BCS bowl hopes alive with the victory and will finish the regular season on the road at South Florida next Thursday night. The Bulls dropped a 34-24 decision to Louisville earlier today.
Pitt (5-6) wraps up its regular season next Saturday against Syracuse at Heinz Field hoping to avoid a losing season and become bowl eligible.