WVU, Pitt players remember 1970 Backyard Brawl
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- This week, Pitt Coach Dave Wannstedt was asked about the way Friday's game against West Virginia might play out and even hinted that neither team will score many points.
The specifics of the conversation didn't hinge on the meaning of the Backyard Brawl because Wannstedt's reply touched on a nerve that's still stings Mountaineer fans after 40 years.
"The minute you say that," Wannstedt said of the likelihood of a low-scoring contest, "and it's a 36-35 game."
Interesting choice of score. Wannstedt was a freshman at Pitt in 1970 and on the freshman team in a time when only sophomores, juniors and seniors could play on varsity squads. The Panthers played host to West Virginia in the 63rd Backyard Brawl and trailed 35-8 at halftime.
Pitt won, 36-35.
"All I remember was I just kept looking up to the scoreboard," said Wannstedt, who watched from the stands at Pitt Stadium. "I was trying to figure out how it was the fourth quarter and we were within 10 points of tying this thing up. It was just a remarkable game - a remarkable game."
Wannstedt's counterpart in Friday's game at noon and on ABC at Heinz Field, WVU Coach Bill Stewart, also was on the freshman team that finished 3-1 that season with wins against Pitt, Virginia Tech and Maryland. He can remember where he was and what he was thinking that Oct. 17 afternoon.
"Very vividly," he said.
And that's about all Stewart cares to offer.
"It was 40 years ago," Stewart said. "It was a very tough loss for those seniors that year. I felt bad for them."
Stewart's brevity hasn't been reserved for that game this week. He's been more frenetic than usual and tried to get from one point to the next as efficiently as possible. His conference calls and press conferences have been uncharacteristically short and filled with equally unexpected concise responses.
"I'm a little more short this week because I want to get to the point," Stewart said. "I want everything I'm doing to be about this Friday."
Friday is about Pitt and WVU, though every time the schools play football against one another the 1970 game is mentioned.
"I'll never forget it," said Mike Sherwood, who was WVU's quarterback that day. "Never, ever forget it. Can't."
Dave Havern, who started as Pitt's quarterback for an injured John Hogan, can't let go, either, though for obviously different reasons.
"It was," Havern said, "my Andy Warhol moment."
The Mountaineers started the season 4-0 in Bobby Bowden's first season as head coach and were No. 11 in the country before losing at home to Duke, 21-13. A week later, WVU traveled to Pittsburgh, strayed from its dive option scheme and ran some wrinkles very well early on with Bob Gresham and Eddie Williams.
Gresham had 142 yards in the first half and Williams scored the game's first three touchdowns for a 21-0 lead. WVU answered a score by the Panthers with two more before the end of the half, including a 32-yard touchdown pass from Sherwood to Jim Braxton as time expired to take a huge lead into halftime.
"They were bigger than us," Sherwood said. "They were pretty physical, but we had such good speed, so we did a lot of outside stuff, tossing the ball, running toss traps, throwing some bootleg passes, generally doing things that weren't right at them and taking advantage of it.
"At halftime, Coach Bowden just said, 'Go back to our base offense. We're just going to run the ball.'"
The Mountaineers had beaten the Panthers 48-19 the year before, which was Coach Jim Carlen's last season at WVU. Williams ran for 199 yards and Sherwood added a career-high 109 on just seven carries, also the most of his career.
"Their coach was upset about it," said Sherwood, 61, a retired principal and administrator in Bellaire, Ohio. "He thought we ran the score up and said something to Coach Carlen about it. Hearing things after the fact, I really don't think they were coming out thinking they were going to win.
"I think their thought was to run the ball and shorten the game as much as they can. I think if you asked anybody from Pitt, they couldn't tell you they thought they'd come back."
The Panthers decided to trust their strengths and went with goal line sets, power I formations and three running backs. They scored on their first drive. And their second. And their third. A second two-point conversion pass from Havern to tight end Joel Klimel made it 35-24 when the third quarter ended.
"By the time we decided we needed to get back to the things we needed to do, it was like they always say: It's not like a water spigot. You can't turn it on and off when you want," Sherwood said. "We couldn't get it on again."
Pitt kept running at WVU and made it 35-30 early in the fourth quarter and then took the lead, 36-35, on a pass from Havern to Bill Pilconis with 55 seconds remaining for the final score. WVU had its final drive cross into Pitt territory, but with 19 seconds remaining wingback Wayne Porter caught a pass from Sherwood and then lost a fumble.
"We were a play or two away from kicking a field goal," Sherwood said.
The Panthers never punted in the second half and ran 61 plays. The touchdowns covered 2, 7, 1 and 5 yards. It was deliberate and physical football and on both side of the ball for Pitt.
"It wasn't like West Virginia punted on first down," said Havern, who was 8-18 as the Pitt starter and today coaches the Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh. "They were still playing. They were trying to move the football. That's one of the things I've always thought about.
"You know, everyone talks about the offense and what we did, but the job our defense did cannot be forgotten about. It was a total 180 for us in that second half."
There were lessons to be learned for a young Bowden that day. Last December, before coaching the final game of his career for Florida State against WVU in the Gator Bowl, Bowden admitted, "Nothing will ever erase that. That's still the bleakest day of my career. In 56 years of coaching, that's the bleakest day of my career. I ought to be shot."
He maintained regret over the way he handled the second half and it's relevant today. The Mountaineers frequently gain a lead, adjust their offense, run the football and trust their defense to stop the opponent. WVU has outscored five Big East opponents 85-38 in the first half, but managed just one touchdown and three field goals while being outscored 23-16 after halftime.
"You never heard of me sitting on the ball again after that, did you?" Bowden said. "All you heard was people complaining about me running up the score. Well, you're daggum right. I learned that in 1970 against Pittsburgh. I wasn't sitting on any score after that."