This was theater worthy of the national stage. The stakes may have been higher at times in the 116 years since this series began, but few Brawls could have been any more thrilling.
It was Jeff Casteel’s defense -- maligned throughout the season and struggling to overcome the loss of seven starters from a year ago -- that put an exclamation point at the end of this one. With the Panthers holding the ball in the final minute and attempting to drive for a game-winning score, veterans ensured it would not happen.
On first down, Julian Miller, playing his final WVU home game on his birthday, pressured Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri and forced him to throw the ball away. A flag was thrown for intentional grounding. Sunseri was then sacked by another senior, linebacker Najee Goode. A third senior, Bruce Irvin, sacked Sunseri on the next play, causing the signal-caller to fumble. Pitt’s Ryan Schlieper picked it up and ran for 18 yards, but the clock had expired.
Players and coaches on the Mountaineer sideline -- including the team’s 22 seniors -- exploded onto the field jubilantly. Their Big East Conference championship hopes were still alive, and for at least one more day, so were their BCS bowl dreams.
“To go out and be able to win a rivalry game will be something they will remember for a long time,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said.
It didn’t look like any of that would be possible early. WVU made pivotal mistakes on special teams, setting up the Panthers with excellent field position and playing poorly enough to dig a 20-7 hole when Kevin Harper converted a 27-yard field goal with 11:29 left in the third quarter.
But the Mountaineers’ defense showed just how much it has grown in recent weeks.
Offensive Player of the Game
57.2 yard average
62 yard long
After a poor first quarter, it simply refused to bend. None of the Panthers’ last 13 drives (covering the second quarter on) covered more than 23 yards. They averaged merely 11 yards on those possessions. West Virginia, which surrendered 49 points to lowly Syracuse earlier this season, was simply dominant.
“They did a tremendous job,” Holgorsen said.
That allowed Holgorsen’s offense, which struggled to deal with pressure from Pitt’s stout defensive line in the first half, a chance to rally.
WVU (8-3) made adjustments to “take some pressure off the offensive line” according to Holgorsen. It also inserted Curtis Feight (a converted defensive lineman who had never played a snap) and Quinton Spain onto the right side of the line.
With them, the running game was available. The Mountaineers rushed for 115 yards in the second half after being held to negative-2 in the first half. On the possession immediately after Harper’s field goal made it 20-7, WVU ran the ball on five of its seven plays. It punctuated the drive with an 8-yard touchdown rush by Shawne Alston. A game West Virginia had all but given to Pitt was suddenly 20-14.
The defensive dominance continued. The Panthers’ next four drives covered two, two, one and seven yards, respectively. And though the Mountaineers weren’t scoring either, they still had a chance.
Midway through the fourth quarter, they took advantage.
Defensive Player of the Game
12 total tackles
WVU drove to Pitt’s 24, where it faced fourth-and-6. Holgorsen kept the offense on the field rather than send on kicker Tyler Bitancurt to try to draw within three. The gambit paid off, as Geno Smith hit Tavon Austin for nine yards. Three plays later, Alston scored again. Bitancurt’s extra point gave the hosts their first lead at 21-20.
The Panthers (5-6) finally moved the ball a bit, getting just into West Virginia territory. But on a third-and-5, Sunseri was sacked by Irvin and Will Clarke to end the threat.
Holgorsen’s offense got the ball back, needing to kill 2:30 off the clock to win. It couldn’t as a drive that began at WVU’s own 6-yard line ended with a three-and-out.
But Corey Smith -- the punter who lost his starting job after a few too many shanked kicks early this season, only to get it back on Friday night when his replacement, Michael Molinari, had the same problems -- delivered a 60-yarder to flip field position.
That set up the defense’s game-sealing heroics. Sunseri barely converted a sneak on a fourth-and-inches, but never gained another yard, as the trio of lost-yardage plays ended Pitt’s chances.
“It was heart-breaking for us,” Pitt coach Todd Graham, a former Mountaineer assistant, said.
West Virginia overcame a pair of turnovers on punt returns -- one that bounced off Ishmael Banks and another that was muffed by Austin -- and shanked punts, at least one of which set up Pitt’s second touchdown drive, when the Panthers took a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter on a 6-yard scoring run by Isaac Bennett.
The Mountaineers responded with a 63-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Stedman Bailey to draw within 14-7. But Harper kicked a 30-yard field goal to make it 17-7 at halftime.
For WVU, Smith was 22-of-31 for 244 yards and a score. Dustin Garrison rushed for 55 yards on 11 carried, while Alston scored twice on his 11 attempts. Bailey had 80 receiving yards and a touchdown, and Austin added 102 yards on 10 catches.
In the process, Smith broke the school record for passing yards in a season, Bailey earned the program record for receiving yards in a season, and Austin now holds the mark for receptions in a season.
The Panthers’ Sunseri was 12-of-23 through the air for 137 yards. He was sacked a staggering 10 times -- including nine on the last 25 Pitt offensive plays. Bennett rushed for 69 yards and a touchdown, while fellow running back Zach Brown added 67 yards on 15 attempts.
West Virginia now must sit back and spectate if it hopes to make a BCS bowl. Cincinnati must win on Saturday at Syracuse -- otherwise, Louisville will win the spot. Regardless of that outcome, the Mountaineers can earn a share of the Big East title with a win at USF on Thursday night.