It was an easier-than-expected 35-10 win for the Mountaineers in the Backyard Brawl, one that left WVU needing only one last break to go its way to win the Big East championship.
West Virginia (8-3, 4-2) will be watching the scoreboard on Saturday, hoping Connecticut falls to Cincinnati (or, if not then, in the regular season finale against South Florida).
If the Huskies fall, the Mountaineers, who were all but forgotten in the league race not even a month ago, could secure a BCS bowl bid with a win over Rutgers next Saturday in Morgantown.
Stunning as it is, the fact that WVU finds itself in this position might not be as improbable as the way it won the most lopsided decision in this annual border rivalry since then-coach Rich Rodriguez's offense, just finding its stride, annihilated Pitt 45-13 in 2005.
A Mountaineer offense that had generated almost no production in the second halves of games this season suddenly could do no wrong in the final 30 minutes of this one, piling up 285 total yards in that span and putting 21 points on the board to pull away.
Power running, largely at the hands of running back Shawne Alston and fullback Ryan Clarke (who combined for 99 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries), worked.
Speed rushing, handled by running back Noel Devine (who averaged almost seven yards per carry) was effective when needed.
Quick-hitter passes to the edges of a sloppy track at Heinz Field (the work of slot receiver Jock Sanders, who gained 70 yards on four catches and Devine, who added another 48 yards on his lone reception) gashed the Panthers.
And deep balls were the bane of Pitt's defense as well, as quarterback Geno Smith found receiver Tavon Austin twice -- both for touchdowns (including one of 71 yards on the first drive of the third quarter).
"When we had the ball, we were good," said WVU head coach Bill Stewart. "We regrouped, made some adjustments and got the win."
Those adjustments were needed, as the Mountaineer defense -- the team's strength all season -- was tested in a way it hadn't been in some time, giving up 362 yards of its own.
But as Stewart had hoped in recent weeks, the defense made up for its deficiencies by forcing turnovers, recovering three fumbles and intercepting Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri once.
That pick came early and almost immediately put the home-standing Panthers behind.
To the surprise of almost every observer, Pitt took the opening kickoff and made a concerted effort to throw the ball, as opposed to pounding away as most expected with running backs Dion Lewis and Ray Graham.
Instead, Sunseri passes on the first five plays from scrimmage. The strategy backfired on the fifth of those throws, as the signal-caller was picked off by WVU cornerback Brandon Hogan as he tried to find wide receiver Jon Baldwin. Hogan returned the interception 53 yards, putting the Mountaineer offense in business at the Panthers’ 2-yard line.
One play later, West Virginia had the lead. Clarke took a handoff out of the power-I formation and rumbled into the end zone, and the visitors were up 7-0 before the contest was even two minutes old.
But Pitt didn’t wilt under the early pressure, and momentum began to turn.
After an exchange of punts, the Panthers took over in good field position at their own 41-yard line. On the strength of a pair of third down conversions (including an improbable 18-yard scramble by Sunseri on third-and-8), Pitt drove down the field against a typically stout Mountaineer defense.
Sunseri capped the drive by hitting receiver Devin Street for an 8-yard scoring pass, tying the contest at 7-7 late in the first quarter.
Pitt’s defense then held WVU to a three-and-out on the ensuing possession, and the 60,562 in attendance at Heinz Field started to feel things turning around. Sunseri again led the team’s offense, aided by a roughing the punter penalty on Bruce Irvin, into West Virginia territory.
But Lewis, who had caught a short pass from Sunseri, fumbled near the red zone -- one of five Panther fumbles in the first half and one of six overall. Terence Garvin scooped the ball up for the Mountaineers and returned it to near midfield.
While Stewart’s squad couldn’t turn that turnover into points, it did so on its next opportunity, which came shortly thereafter.
Pitt’s Graham fumbled on his team’s next possession, as WVU’s Casey Vance ripped the ball free of the Panthers’ star running back’s grasp. Hogan recovered near midfield and the Mountaineers were in business.
After Smith was sacked on the next play, the sophomore quarterback hit Devine on a simple swing pass that Devine turned into a 48-yard gain.
The senior showed the acceleration that has seemingly been lacking since he sustained a toe injury in West Virginia’s early-season loss at LSU, getting to the sideline and racing away from would-be tacklers before getting caught at the Panthers’ 2-yard line.
Tight end Will Johnson worked his way wide open on the next snap, and Smith found him for an easy 2-yard toss. Improbably, the Mountaineers led 14-7 at halftime.
That was in spite of a box score that indicated Pitt was dominant in every way. The Panthers had 205 yards of offense at the intermission to WVU's 75. Against the nation's No. 1 third down defense, the home squad moved the chains on eight of its 12 chances in those situations.
But it was turnovers, once West Virginia's biggest bugaboo, that cost Pitt. The Panthers fumbled five times and lost two in the first half and had to deal with Sunseri's costly early interception. Both of WVU's first half scoring drives started on Pitt's side of the 50-yard line.
"The turnovers prevented us from taking the lead," Panthers head coach Dave Wannstedt said frankly.
"We had two or three opportunities to get points. You're only going to get so many opportunities."
The Mountaineers wouldn't need such help in the second half. Smith hit Austin for a 71-yard bomb on the third play of the third quarter to make it 21-7.
"Tavon is quick when he gets out in space," Stewart said. "You can't catch him. He's difficult to get the handcuffs on. He's the quickest little guy."
"We came out after halftime and gave up one play to begin the second half, and then the air kind of came out of the balloon," Wannstedt said. "We had to play catch up -- right into their hands."
Pitt (6-5, 4-2) again responded, driving all to way to West Virginia's 29-yard line. But Wannstedt kept his offense on the field instead of attempting a 46-yard field goal, and Mountaineer linebacker Anthony Leonard broke up Sunseri's pass on fourth-and-3 to end the threat.
Wannstedt did send kicker Dan Hutchins onto the field on his team's next drive, as a 48-yard toss from Sunseri to Baldwin was all it took to put the Panthers in field goal range. Hutchins' attempt was true from 42 yards away, and the lead was down to 21-10.
But Stewart's squad answered and started to put the game out of reach, driving 67 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown. The first nine snaps were all run plays, but on third-and-7 from the Pitt 12-yard line, Smith found Austin in the end zone to make it 28-10.
Any thoughts the hosts had of a fourth quarter comeback were dashed when Pitt center Alex Karabin sent an erratic snap back towards Sunseri on second-and-6 from the WVU 9-yard line. The quarterback inexplicably tried to pick the ball up instead of simply falling on it, and Mountaineer defensive lineman Scooter Berry took control to end another long Pitt drive with no points.
"Pitt was knocking on the door all day, but we didn't let them in," Stewart said.
Eleven plays and 76 yards later, West Virginia put the final nail in the proverbial coffin, as Clarke scored his second 2-yard touchdown run of the day to make it 35-10 with 7:45 left.
Pitt fans began to file out of Heinz Field, and rumblings began among those in the press box as to whether Wannstedt's days as the head Panther might be numbered.
"I really thought we'd play better today," he said, seemingly defeated. "We didn't."
Those same discussions were being entertained about Stewart's future only weeks ago, but the WVU head coach has rallied his team from off the deck and back to the brink of its first Big East Conference championship in his three-year tenure.
"[It's a] heck of a win for West Virginia -- the players, the coaches, the staff and for me," Stewart said. "To come on the road and win in the Big East and in the Backyard Brawl is really special, and to win in a pretty good manner is even more pleasant."