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Backyard Brawl Post-Game

This time, Pitt was the better team.

And the final score, 19-15, doesn’t tell the entire story.

It sounds so simple, yet it’s really amazing to remember that West Virginia won the Backyard Brawl in such devastating fashion, 45-13, in 2005 that Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt had a two-word solution:

Run faster.

While that explanation in a halftime interview was mocked throughout the Big East and beyond, consider the drastic differences in WVU’s statistics in the past four meetings (otherwise known as the Pat White era):

Year Rushing Passing Total Yards
2005 451 41 492
2006 437 204 641
2007 104 79 183
2008 157 143 300

Who would have imagined that after what White did to Pitt in the first two Brawls – rushing for 440 yards and four touchdowns on 43 carries – that the Panthers could limit him to 134 yards and one touchdown in his junior and senior seasons combined?

That would have been a great quarter or a good half for the NCAA record-holder for rushing yards by a quarterback. Yet Pitt took away White’s ability to not only run but to pitch the ball to backs Jock Sanders and Noel Devine, and beat West Virginia by forcing him to pass.

Wannstedt has been second-guessed by some, ridiculed by others for how long it has taken his Panthers to reach a bowl game, let alone return to the championship contention he predicted upon his arrival. But Pitt is 8-3 for the first time since 2004, when it won a share of the Big East title and played in the BCS Fiesta Bowl, and has won 11 of its past 17 games.

Where 28-point underdog Pitt needed a heroic effort to pull off the 13-9 upset of West Virginia in Morgantown last season, these Panthers outplayed the Mountaineers in almost every facet. Pitt outgained West Virginia in rushing yards (190-157), passing yards (156-143) and total yards (346-300) and won the time-of-possession battle (31:49 to 28:11).

The Panthers won despite missing a 40-yard field goal, despite losing a fumble at its own 39, despite throwing an interception in the end zone from the West Virginia 2, despite giving up the go-ahead points on a 54-yard run by White, despite answering an interception by throwing another and despite trailing until the final minute of the fourth quarter.

Those are all things that killed Pitt in the past.

Not only are these Panthers faster, they’re tougher. And better.

* Another virtuoso performance by LeSean McCoy in the Backyard Brawl. He’s become Pitt’s version of Pat White in this game. McCoy rushed for 148 yards on 38 carries last year and a career-high 183 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries this year.

The Mountaineers can only hope McCoy declares for the NFL Draft, despite his declaration that he will return for his junior season. If McCoy can duplicate his performance against Connecticut next Saturday and in Pitt bowl game, he might change his tune about staying in school.

Based on my conversations with scouts and agents this week, McCoy might benefit by another year in college football, barring injury, of course. They believe he is a first-round talent who likely will be taken among the top 32 picks if he decides to go pro.

But McCoy has room for improvement, and he is the first to admit that he could use another year in the weight room to add upper-body muscle to his 5-foot-11, 205-pound frame. Fifteen pounds is what separates him from LaDainian Tomlinson as the prototypical NFL running back.

The added strength would help him in pass-protection, where he is often forced to cut-block defenders, and make him more durable. McCoy also has to prove that he can protect the pigskin. Ball security is an issue, and not just because he’s lost several fumbles this season. He cradles the ball carelessly at times, holding it away from his body.

I’m not doubting McCoy’s sincerity that he wants to stay, because he might be determined to lead Pitt to a top-10 national ranking, Big East championship and BCS bowl, as well as enjoy the spotlight Heisman Trophy candidacy brings. But a lot can happen between now and mid-January, when underclassmen must declare for the 2009 NFL Draft.

* It was nice to see fifth-year senior middle linebacker Scott McKillop go out with a victory over West Virginia in his Heinz Field finale. What a career McKillop has had, considering Pitt was his only scholarship offer when he verbally committed as a junior in May 2003.

McKillop spent three seasons behind an eventual All-American and Big East defensive player of the year in H.B. Blades, learning his craft and stepping in when it was his turn. It was against West Virginia as a redshirt freshman that McKillop learned a valuable lesson to always be ready, and here’s hoping his successor has been watching McKillop closely.

McKillop was credited with a team-high seven tackles, but he played as big of a role as anyone in helping the Panthers beat the Mountaineers by helping to keep White from running wild. Aside from his 54-yard run on a broken play, White had 11 carries for a pedestrian 39 yards.

“You’ve got to keep him contained. We didn’t do it that one time and he really hurt us,” McKillop said. “That’s the one thing. He hasn’t become the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher as a quarterback for nothing. He made some plays. We knew it was going to happen. We stopped him when we needed to.”

McKillop came up with two crucial stops late in the fourth quarter, when Pitt was trailing, 15-13, and West Virginia could have run out the clock. He landed a big hit on White for a 1-yard loss on second-and-1 at the WVU 32. Ryan Stanchek drew a holding penalty on the next play, forcing a third-and-9 at the 24. That’s when McKillop stopped Noel Devine for no gain.

* When it comes to play-calling, it’s hard to figure out the Panthers. The first drive, which is usually scripted, was a thing of beauty. Pitt ran five plays, gained 64 yards and scored a touchdown. A second-and-14 saw a 28-yard pass from Bill Stull to tight end Nate Byham. A second-and-3 saw McCoy pick up a first down. That was followed by a picture-perfect pass from Stull to Derek Kinder, who scores on Senior Day.

What happened after that is a head scratcher.

On Pitt’s next possession, a 25-yard pass to Byham gave the Panthers a first-and-goal at the 9. LaRod Stephens-Howling replaced McCoy and was dropped for a 5-yard loss on a toss left. On the next play, Byham drew a holding penalty to make it second-and-goal at the 24. A screen pass to Stephens-Howling picked up 4 yards. Then, on third-and-goal at the 20, Pitt ran the Wildcat with Stephens-Howling handing off to Aundre Wright on a reverse for a 3-yard loss. Conor Lee misses a 40-yard field goal.

That series was as mystifying as anything that followed. If Pitt just runs McCoy at the 9, it has a chance of going up 14-0. As good as McCoy is, he’s even better when he gets anywhere near the end zone.

The play-calling was pretty good on that late second-quarter drive, when a swing pass to McCoy picked up 14 yards on a third-and-4 at the WVU 47 and was followed by Stephens-Howling’s 11-yard run. McCoy gained 16 yards to the 3, then 1 yard on first down. Why Pitt called for a pass makes little sense, and Wannstedt said he wished he could have the call back.

* Which brings us to Stull. If you think Wannstedt wishes he could have that call back, imagine how much Stull wishes he could have another crack at the pass he had intercepted by Quinton Andrews in the end zone.

Here’s Stull explanation:

“I wasn’t expecting No. 8 to buzz out to the back corner,” Stull said. “I’m usually throwing jump-balls to JB (Jonathan Baldwin), and that’s what I tried to do. It was a bad throw. I probably should have done what I did the last fade we threw to him, when we had a false start (on the two-point conversion attempt in the fourth quarter). I kind of back-shouldered him a little bit just because the defender in the corner was trying to press and jam him. It was a bad throw.”

Stull has struggled in the past two games, but there’s more to the story. The Panthers are having trouble getting the plays called in and getting the snap off before the play clock expires. That doesn’t excuse Stull’s poor throws – he should have thrown it out of the end zone and moved on to third-and-goal at the 2 – but it does explain his rushing decisions.

Once again, Stull took full blame for a poor performance. He was visibly down even in the aftermath of the Brawl victory, knowing that Pitt won not because of him but in spite of him.

“I’m so happy it’s a team sport because I made some bad decisions and did some things that hurt us, but that’s the beauty of football,” Stull said. “There’s 10 guys there that have your back and who want it as badly as I do.”

Especially McCoy.

“Having No. 25 behind me, pretty much can outweigh the mistakes that I made that put us in a bind a little bit. Obviously, he’s a great, unbelievable football player. That makes my job easier. When I do make a mistake and the guys up front are playing well. Shady is an unbelievable football player.”

* West Virginia is not known as a great passing program, but the Pitt secondary redeemed itself with its pass coverage. Dom DeCicco picked off a White pass sailing toward the sideline for his team-best third interception of the season, which gave the defense a boost.

“When you get an interception, it starts building confidence,” DeCicco said, “and you feel like you can start jumping routes more, doing more things.”

Soon after, Jovani Chappel made the play of the game by reading White and intercepting a pass at the WVU 30 and returning it to the 16. McCoy scored two plays later to put the Panthers back in it.

* Other memorable plays:

* Weak-side linebacker Austin Ransom, who had six tackles, dropped Devine for a 3-yard loss on a second-and-6 on the final play of the first quarter. Defensive end Greg Romeus started the second quarter by dropping White for a 3-yard loss to force a punt.

* WVU cornerback Ellis Lankster appeared to make a nice interception of a Stull pass, dragging his feet as he was falling out of bounds. Upon review, replays showed it inconclusive.

* DeCicco made a great recovery on a third-and-4 at the WVU 35 when the Mountaineers took a shot deep. There was confusion in coverage between cornerback Aaron Berry and DeCicco, but DeCicco scrambled to break up a pass to Jock Sanders that would have been a touchdown.

* WVU linebacker John Holmes replaced Mortty Ivy, and stripped Stull while in throwing motion. The ball was recovered by defensive end Scooter Berry at the Pitt 39.

The Panthers caught a break when WVU lined up White in the slot, then had him go in motion and take a handoff from backup Jarrett Brown and throw a corner fade to 6-foot-7 Wes Lyons. Corner Ricky Gary tried to break it up, and a review showed that Lyons caught the ball but touched the pylon with one foot and landed out of bounds with the other.

* After letting White gain a yard on a sneak on fourth-and-1 at its 10, Pitt caught another break when White threw three consecutive incomplete passes with a first-and-goal at the 9. Why White was throwing and not running was stupefying, but the blame rested with Dorrell Jalloh, who dropped a sure TD in the back of the end zone.

* Pitt defensive end Greg Romeus stood up Sanders, allowing Ransom to strip him and race 40 yards for a touchdown. Good thing for WVU the play was ruled dead. Two plays later, White scored his TD.

* White’s run was as spectacular of a play as we’ve seen this season. He ran left, reversed field and outran defensive end Jabaal Sheard, DeCicco and slipped the diving tackle of McKillop for a 54-yard score to give the Mountaineers a 12-7 lead with 6:05 left in the third quarter.

* To give Stull some credit, he threw a perfect out pass toward the home sideline that T.J. Porter dropped. Stull responded by hitting Byham for a 12-yard gain to the WVU 41. But then Stull missed fullback Conredge Collins on a fourth-and-3 pass at the WVU 34 to start the fourth quarter.

* How Gary was called for pass interference on a flea flicker pass from Sanders to Bradley Starks is beyond me. The ball was overthrown and the contact was incidental. The result was a 40-yard field goal by Pat McAfee for a 15-7 lead with 11:53 remaining.

On the flip side, how West Virginia cornerback Brandon Hogan got away with interference while draped on the back of Dorin Dickerson on a third-and-7 pass deserves an explanation. If Chappel doesn’t pick off that pass on the next possession, Pitt is howling about that non-call. The Big East officiating has been bad this season, just like it was last year.

* As bad as calling a designed draw from the 8-yard line on a two-point conversion attempt was, the play was there if left tackle Jason Pinkston doesn’t fall and lose his block. Stull saw something that made him move forward, but the execution on the play failed him. Pinkston, by the way, negated a successful two-point pass to Baldwin with a false-start flag on the previous play. Sometimes, it’s not all on the quarterback.

* On the other hand, the play-action toss to McCoy on second-and-16 at the WVU 35 was a great call. McCoy was the lone back, but Stull ran the fake to his left before tossing right and McCoy picked up 16 yards to the WVU 19. Stull credited the offensive line.

“We said, ‘We want it more. We’re at our house. We’re not going to let this happen.’ The guys up front stepped up and said, ‘Shady, I’m going to make a hole for you. Make sure you run it and protect the ball.’

“If you watch the tape, you’ll see we did a lot of the little things: held position on this block or that block, blocking the right people and making the right calls.”

* Pitt has a chance for its first nine-win finish in the regular season since 1982 when the Panthers (8-3, 4-2) visit Connecticut (7-4, 3-3) at Rentschler Field in East Hartford next Saturday. The 2002 team won nine games but that included a victory over Oregon State in the Insight Bowl.

If you recall, this column predicted Pitt to finish 9-3.

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