Pitt’s stunning victory over second-ranked West Virginia ended late Saturday night, about a week after it began. Before Pitt could win, it had to believe. There was nobody better to show the Panthers how to believe than Dave Wannstedt. For him, the Backyard Brawl is personal.
Wannstedt grew up with it, played in it and coached in it. He knows the history and, despite repeated denials, no doubt took offense when Don Nehlen was quoted saying, “I don’t know if the rivalry is as big as it used to be.”
It is now.
“This thing probably started actually last week, when we tried to every day bring alive the great tradition of this rivalry, with the 100th year,” Wannstedt said. “We showed them tapes from past games all week long.”
Perhaps it’s just what the Panthers needed. Never mind that Pitt entered the 100th Backyard Brawl with a 59-37 advantage (with three ties). The Panthers had won only one of the past four Brawls, a 16-13 victory at Heinz Field in 2004. They lost the others in blowout fashion, by scores of 52-31 in 2003, 45-13 in 2005 and 45-27 last year.
Offensive line coach Paul Dunn, who played for the Panthers in the early 1980s, shared his Brawl experiences. Strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris, whose work showed up Saturday, also told a few stories.
“We’re all we had,” McCoy said. “We looked at all the old games from back then. Some of the coaches who played in it told us of their battles with West Virginia. Some of them didn’t have a shot, either. Pete Gonzalez, fourth-and-17 and he made it happen. The tradition got to us. We came in here and we were determined.”
Wannstedt had Dave Havern talk to the Panthers Friday. Now the football coach at Shady Side Academy, Havern was the hero quarterback of Pitt’s 36-35 comeback victory over West Virginia in the 1970 Brawl, which the Mountaineers led, 35-7, at the half.
Wannstedt was a freshman on that team. He went 2-2 against West Virginia as a player, winning in 1970 and ’73, when he was a senior captain and Tony Dorsett led Pitt to a 35-7 victory at old Mountaineer Field.
Wannstedt shared a story last week about receiving a trash-talking telegram from a West Virginia defensive lineman back in ’73, slipping it into his sock for the game and confronting that Mountaineer about it afterward. All to the surprise of the player, who appeared to know nothing about the telegram. After the season, Wannstedt’s offensive line coach confessed to sending it as motivation.
Wannstedt didn’t need such tactics for his 28½-point underdogs. All he had to do was turn on the television.
“Throughout the whole week, we watched all the predictions and some of the sportscasts, really, just slaughtered us and labeled us to lose,” redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Tommie Duhart said after his first Backyard Brawl. “It motivated a lot of people. A lot of people came out this week ready to practice, ready to go out and win. It was always there, the faith was always there. We just had to put it together.”
Added receiver Oderick Turner: “All week, we all were feeding into that, everybody thinking we were not going to have a chance. Everybody downplayed us, like we’re not a good team. We knew the team we had and the focus we needed to win this game, and we just executed on everything.”
• After giving up 1,092 yards – including 888 rushing – and 90 points in the past two meetings, Pitt coaches elected not to come up with a gimmick scheme to stop WVU the way it had last season and against Navy in October.
The Panthers decided to play aggressively out of their base defense, believing their defensive line could win the battle up front. The plan was dependent upon the defensive ends containing the outside and the secondary making open-field tackles, and they did just that.
“Basic technique,” Duhart said. “Not letting them get outside of us, keeping them contained. Those are some very talented dudes, but we’ve got just as much talent. When everybody is working together, you’ve got two people working against a body of 11. We say, ‘All in.’ With all of us pursuing the ball, it’s hard to outrun us like that.”
Wannstedt credited the defensive coaches with a game plan he called “unbelievable.” This coming from a guy charged with stopping Oklahoma’s Wishbone at the height of its success in the mid-1980s.
He was right, though, considering that West Virginia started two drives in Pitt territory – one at the 27, the other at the 33 – and ended four inside Pitt’s 30 without scoring. It was the same story all season, one that cost the Panthers dearly in losses against Connecticut and Virginia but, ironically enough, prepared them for West Virginia.
“Defensively, I felt like we’ve believed since day one, really,” Wannstedt said. “We were put in a lot of bad situations all season. You know how many times we took over on defense on our side of the 50 and had to stop them?”
Funny thing, though. Wannstedt said he wanted to force West Virginia into 80-yard scoring drives. Defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads took exception, saying he’d rather make the Mountaineers go three and out.
West Virginia scored its only points on a 14-play, 74-yard drive. Its other 11 possessions included four three-and-outs, two four-play drives that totaled 23 yards, two seven-play drives that covered a combined 51 yards, a 10-play drive that covered 42 yards and two drives that ended in fumbles, one by quarterback Jarrett Brown as he was sacked and the other by Vaughn Rivers on a kick return.
WVU had the ball for all of 7:32 in the second half.
Pitt ran for 158 yards, had a 12:38 time-of-possession advantage for the game, held West Virginia to 104 yards rushing and 183 total and recovered three.
“Everybody knows how good of a football team West Virginia was,” Wannstedt said. “We don’t need to talk about that. The plan coming in was almost too simple: Run the ball, use the clock, play great defense and create a couple turnovers. That’s how it unfolded.”
• In a point-counterpoint in the Trib last week, I made the statement that “not only is LeSean McCoy better than Noel Devine, he might even be better than Steve Slaton.”
McCoy proved me right by rushing for a game-high 148 yards on 38 carries against a defense that had held opponents to 103 yards a game this season.
They were well-earned yards. McCoy’s longest run was 19 yards, and he averaged 3.9 yards per carry.
“It wasn’t easy,” Wannstedt said. “Halfway through the game, we said this is not going to be a game where you can dance. He came over at the end of the game and gave me a hug and said, ‘Coach, I was not dancing tonight. I was just trying to run as hard as I could, straight ahead, whether there was anything there or not.’”
McCoy, as always, seemed stunned by his output.
“I didn’t expect to get the ball that much,” McCoy said. “The game plan, obviously, was to run the ball. The line, they did a great job today. As much film and preparation as we did for this game, they deserved it.”
McCoy broke the Big East freshman rushing record in the process, something that was overshadowed by the victory but an incredible accomplishment nonetheless.
“It feels good, I guess, any awards you receive,” McCoy said. “The biggest thing to me is how we fought. The linemen, it makes it easier for a running back when they’ve got hole and they want to block for you. … People forget: It’s not what he’s doing, it’s what the team’s doing.”
This was McCoy first Backyard Brawl, and it’s one where he emerged as a vocal leader for the Panthers. Wannstedt spoke of the bus ride into Milan Puskar Stadium, and how McCoy stood up and spoke after the bus was hit by an object by rowdy Mountaineers fans.
“I was just getting them up. This was a big game, a big stage. The biggest thing was that everybody was counting us out,” McCoy said. “We just felt like we were going to win, at least make a reasonable statement. That just got me up. This whole week, I’ve been ready for them. That bus ride just got to me. I got real emotional, said a couple words to the guys, not even to anybody direct, just to everybody.”
If McCoy didn’t understand the intensity of the Brawl earlier in the week, he got a sense of it at that moment.
“That bus ride came and I realized it,” McCoy said. “I was thinking, ‘Why do these guys hate us so much?’ I don’t understand why. At the start of the game, everybody was talking. It’s a different game. Football is football, but it’s a different game with them guys.
“It’s different. I’ve played a lot of football, and I’ve never seen anything like this. People were yelling at us, throwing stuff at us. I think that kind of motivated us even more.”
On FSN Pittsburgh’s Panthers Weekly, McCoy was shown shouting words of encouragement to his teammates on the sidelines. For a freshman, he’s already grabbed this program and elevated it on his shoulders.
“He’s kind of our pulse, from that standpoint of being the guy we’ve depended upon to make plays in the past nine games,” Bostick said of McCoy. “We know that he’s not going to make every play, but when a guy steps up and says something, it’s for real. He’s stepping up to be a leader, and we need that.”
Want to know what makes McCoy a real leader?
The Brawl win wasn’t good enough for him.
When asked if beating West Virginia makes up for a disappointing 5-7 season that included four single-digit losses – including one at Louisville, where fumbled at the 1-yard line late in the fourth quarter – McCoy didn’t get caught up in the emotion of the big victory.
“There’s no moral victories,” McCoy said. “You can’t look at it like this game covers for the whole season. It’s a big win, definitely. We’ll look past this and get on with next season, every game. If we can beat the No. 2 team in the country, there’s no reason we shouldn’t beat other teams. We’ve got to build on it.”
• Earlier in the week, Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said one of the most important elements of an upset is the key contribution of an unexpected player.
Any one of Pitt’s seniors would suffice. They all made key contributions to finish their careers with the biggest win of their careers.
The offensive line, which includes tackles McGlynn and Jeff Otah and center Chris Vangas, allowed only one sack, helped the Panthers rush for 158 yards and control the clock.
Tight end Darrell Strong had two receptions for 25 yards, including a 26-yarder on a third-and-10 at Pitt’s 29 with 13:08 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Lowell Robinson chased down Vaughn Rivers after a 35-yard kick return and stripped him, causing a fumble that was recovered by Jovani Chappel at the West Virginia 48 and set up Pitt’s only touchdown drive.
Safety Mike Phillips made open-field tackles that prevented White, Slaton and Devine from breaking big runs. Cornerback Kennard Cox kept WVU’s receivers from making big catches. Nickel back Jemeel Brady made six tackles (three solo) and forced a fumble.
Most of all, defensive ends Chris McKillop and Joe Clermond played the a pivotal role in containing the outside against the read-option. McKillop split time with Greg Romeus and had two stops, including one for a loss that would have set up a fourth-and-long if not for Duhart’s unnecessary roughness penalty. Clermond played his best game, recording eight tackles, with a sack, 1.5 tackles for loss and forced fumble to earn Big East Defensive Player of the Week honors in his final college game.
Not a bad finish for 10 guys who had nothing left to play for but pride – and the chance to go down as legends in Pitt history by pulling off an unthinkable upset.
“It didn’t make up for anything,” Clermond said, “but it sure feels good.”
Pitt still finished 5-7 and a third consecutive season without a bowl berth.
“But we beat West Virginia,” McGlynn said. “If we would’ve lost every game this season and won this game, my senior season is a success. And I mean that.
“We went out on a bang, baby.”
More importantly, they left a legacy by showing some heart and never giving up on a roller coaster season. This team, and these seniors, could have quit after losing to Navy at home or Louisville on the road.
Instead, they went 3-3 down the stretch and beat a pair of top-25 teams in No. 23 Cincinnati and No. 2 West Virginia, the latter a memorable moment in Morgantown.
Make that an unforgettable one.
“If you look at our senior class, it was a small class of 10, but they were all contributors. Not all were starters, but they didn’t have any control over some things that happened early in the year that prevented us from winning more games,” Wannstedt said. “Next time we watch the tape, when we start watching games on West Virginia next year, this game now will be one of the first games they talk about, one of the first games they see. It’s a great way for our seniors to go out, something they’ll be remembered for the rest of their lives.”