WVU football: Mountaineers come back, sack Pitt, 21-20
West Virginia trailed Pitt for more than 46 minutes Friday, but took the lead for good on Shawne Alston's second touchdown run with 6:10 left to play as the Mountaineers won the 104th Backyard Brawl, 21-20.
"It was pretty fun," Coach Dana Holgorsen said after his first game against the rival Panthers. "I don't have a voice. Fun. Good atmosphere. Gosh dang, that was fun. The sideline was unbelievable and obviously feeding off the crowd. The crowd got going in the second half. It was loud and rowdy and a lot of fun for the players. They had a great time down there.
"It's more about them than it is me or any of the coaches and any of that, but I had a tremendous amount of fun. Everyone in the locker room and especially the seniors, this is one they're going to remember. It was a great atmosphere and a big-time win."
A Mountaineer Field crowd of 60,932 saw WVU fall behind 14-0 in the first quarter and fight all the way back, but also make a series of errors in between. The Panthers had two chances late and first drove to the WVU 46-yard line, but Bruce Irvin sacked Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri for an eight-yard loss on third-and-5.
After a WVU punt, the Panthers nearly turned the ball over on downs, but Sunseri just barely got the first down on a sneak on fourth-and-1 at the Pitt 43.
The game ended three plays later and was helped along when defensive tackle Julian Miller pressured Sunseri into an intentional grounding penalty on first down. It cost Pitt eight yards and 10 seconds. Sunseri was sacked again on the next play by Najee Goode and then lost the ball on when Irvin sacked him on the game's final play.
The Mountaineers, who entered the game No. 89 nationally with 16 sacks, finished with 10 sacks. Miller, playing on his birthday and in his final home game, tied a school record with four.
"We got tired of being criticized," Miller said. "One thing we actually heard was their offensive line called our defensive line soft. We took it personally. That's one thing we took into the game and they came out and thought they were going to overpower us.
"We wanted to come out and show we were better than then. Straight up, we thought we were better than them and we went out there and just dominated them."
With the win, WVU (8-3, 4-2 Big East) remained alive for a share of the conference championship and the BCS bid. The Mountaineers can clinch a share of the title by winning at South Florida (5-6, 1-5) Thursday.
If WVU wins there and Cincinnati (7-3, 3-2) wins at Syracuse (5-5, 1-4) today and at home against Connecticut (4-6, 2-3) next Saturday, then the Mountaineers share the Big East title with Louisville (7-5, 5-2) and Cincinnati and perhaps even Rutgers (8-3, 4-2), but would also likely have the highest BCS ranking.
That would win a tiebreaker with the two or more teams tied at 5-2 in the Big East.
WVU also hindered the hopes Pitt (5-6, 3-3) held for a bowl bid in what could be the last game between the two for the foreseeable future. The Panthers must win at home against Syracuse Dec. 3 to be eligible for a bowl.
Mountaineers quarterback Geno Smith set the school's single-season records for passing attempts, completions and yards as well as total offense. He was 22-for-31 for 241 yards and one touchdown.
Receiver Stedman Bailey set the season record for receiving yards and finished with three receptions for 80 yards and a 63-yard touchdown. Tavon Austin caught 10 passes for 102 yards. The Mountaineers also put Quinton Spain in at right guard and Curtis Feigt in at right tackle at halftime in place of Tyler Rader and Pat Eger. WVU ran for 115 yards in the second half.
"It helped," Holgorsen said. "We tell everyone they're going to be held accountable for what they do and if they don't play well, we'll replace them. We had some issues with a couple guys up front, so we replaced them. We felt it was the right thing to do."
WVU did a lot of its damage on the right side, including Alston's game-winning touchdown run, his 10th of the season. That capped an 11-play, 83-yard drive that featured Smith's nine-yard pass to Austin on fourth-and-6 at the Pitt 24. Alston scored three plays later.
"We felt like we needed to roll the dice at that point and we needed to score," Holgorsen said. "It's one of those calls that gets questioned either way. I'm glad we did it."
The Mountaineers committed three turnovers, had the ball for almost 13 fewer minutes, were only 2-for-12 on third down and had to switch punters after Michael Molinari had 22- and 27-yard punts, but still won thanks in large part to the defense.
WVU held Pitt's offense to four conversions on 20 third downs and matched the most sacks it's ever had in a Big East game -- including nine in the final 25 plays. The Mountaineers also held Pitt to two field goals after WVU's special teams committed turnovers deep on its half of the field.
WVU's second turnover fielding a punt led to a 20-7 deficit. Austin, who let a punt bounce and hit a teammate in the first half, signaled for a fair catch after Pitt was forced to punt to start the second half.
The ball squirted through Austin's hands and Pitt recovered at the WVU 16. The Panthers ended up kicking a 27-yard field goal. The Mountaineers drove 60 yards in seven plays and 44 of those yards were on runs. WVU had minus-2 yards rushing in the first half, but Dustin Garrison had a 14-yard run and Alston had an 11-yard run before his 8-yard touchdown got the Mountaineers right back into it at 20-14.
Pitt led 14-0 and had 123 yards of offense and seven first downs at the end of the first quarter. It continued a season-long trend for both teams. The Panthers entered the game with an 80-19 scoring edge in the first quarter and six first-quarter shutouts. The Mountaineers, meanwhile, were being outscored 84-68 and hadn't led at the end of the first quarter since Oct. 1.
The Panthers benefited from an unusual penalty against WVU on their first drive. Kicker Kevin Harper missed to the right from 38 yards away, but WVU's Jorge Wright was called for a personal foul on a block below the waist on the kick.
"He said he slipped," Holgorsen said. "It's a penalty. You can't deliberately try to take their knees out. You can go low, but you can't go below the waist. He shot down low and said he did it. He made a mistake."
Pitt got a first down on the penalty and ended up scoring on a 1-yard run by Zach Brown one play after Sunseri sneaked ahead for a first down on fourth-and-1.
Later in the quarter, Molinari's 22-yard punt and gave the Panthers the ball at their 48-yard line. They scored five plays later on a 5-yard run by Isaac Bennett. Molinari would punt once more and that one went just 27 yards. He averaged 34.8 yards on four punts in the first quarter.
Corey Smith replaced Molinari and his first punt traveled 57 yards. That kick and a penalty against Pitt moved its offense back to the 10. Smith would play a large part in helping WVU come back by averaging 57.2 yards on four punts.
"I'd like to think I facilitated it," Smith said.
The Panthers punted and WVU took over at its 38 and scored two plays later. Geno Smith passed to Bailey in the middle and Bailey continued to angle right before stopping, pushing off cornerback Antwuan Reed and then running left for the touchdown.
The Panthers had to punt again, but Austin let the ball bounce and it hopped up and hit teammate Ishmael Banks. Pitt recovered at the 33 and got a first down on the first play before kicking a 30-yard field goal for a 17-7 lead. The Mountaineers punted, but safety Darwin Cook intercepted Sunseri and returned the ball to the Pitt 47 with 31 seconds to go.
Smith was sacked on consecutive plays and yelled at his teammates after the second ended the half.
"The offensive line gave up some sacks and part of that is probably on me too because I can throw the ball away or get out of the pocket or do something to make sure I don't put those guys in that situation," Smith said.
"I was upset because we were losing and I thought definitely we should be winning, but we stayed positive and made some adjustments and came out and won the game in the second half."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.