The Backyard Brawl: 13-9 Revisited

The Backyard Brawl, the annual fray between the Pitt and West Virginia football programs, has produced various landmark games for each school.

However, none had an impact on Pittsburgh and WVU like the 2007 game, the 100th version of the Backyard Brawl. The Panthers were floundering at 4-7 that year, a third straight non-winning, bowl-less season for Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt. WVU was No. 2 nationally and making BCS title-game plans.

The final score, a 13-9 Panthers win, is all that's needed to bring joy to Pitt fans and distress to the Mountaineers. To this day, on the verge of the 102nd Backyard Brawl Friday at 7 p.m. at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, W.Va., those same emotions are elicited.

"That win, when you look back on it, it gave us life,'' Wannstedt said. "That's the way I would classify it. ... We had so many recruits that were right on the bubble, so it gave us an opportunity to get one more shot at these guys and say that it will happen (at Pitt). Believe in us. It was energizing for our players.

"If we lost that game, we would have been coming off a four-win season going into our offseason program. That's a challenge from a coaches' standpoint and a players' standpoint. After that game, I can remember the first day of our offseason program in January. We had as much enthusiasm from a team standpoint to get started to try to build on that (for last season) as any.

"And I'm sure, just for our fan base,'' Wannstedt added, "it was a shot in the arm, a little bit of hope to hang in there. That this was a positive thing, and then we could move forward. ... When we look back on it, that probably was the turning point since I've been here. Without a doubt.''

Wannstedt and the Panthers secured six verbal commitments in a two-week span following that victory, as Cam Saddler (Dec. 5), Mike Shanahan (Dec. 9), Greg Cross (Dec. 9), Jonathan Baldwin (Dec. 10), Tino Sunseri (Dec. 10) and Robb Houser (Dec. 15) chose Pitt.

But that win accomplished more than that. Sure, future recruiting is a key to success, but it galvanized the current team and gave it hope for the future. Just ask fifth-year senior Gus Mustakas, who did not play in that game due to a season-ending knee injury earlier in the season.

"Just being on the sideline and at halftime, I could look in everybody's eyes,'' Mustakas said. "Just knowing that we could do this. It didn't matter that they were ranked No. 2 in the country. This was a Backyard Brawl, and we were ready for it. And once we got going, we were feeling it, believing we could win.

"Then, we went out there and went after it. And after we got the W, I think that was a big changing point for this University and this football team. After that game, we stepped our game up and took this program to the next level. We had a good season last year, and now we're having an even better one.''

Senior tight end Nate Byham also didn't play that night due to a knee injury the previous week that ended his season.

"I had knee surgery two days before the game, so I stayed at home to watch the game with my grandfather,'' Byham said. "Every time I tried to cheer, my nerve block wore off, so it was painful. So, I had to adjust, tone it down a bit, but it was very exciting. And I'm glad we were able to win that game.

"It was huge for our school and huge or our program. Actually, it was huge for anybody associated with the Pitt football program. That's a win that the guys, we're going to be 50, 60 years old, and we'll still be talking about beating No. 2 West Virginia. Sure, it was only our fifth win, but it was more than that.

"We kept West Virginia from winning the national championship or getting a shot to win the national championship,'' Byham added. "They probably feel like they owe us one, but I think we have mutual respect for each other. They'll be some vengeance on their part, because we're the ones going for a BCS game. And if they can knock us off, that could make their season like it did ours.''

Senior right offensive guard John Malecki was a reserve defensive tackle against the Mountaineers, and he had a solid game.

"I played on defense, and I had a sack,'' Malecki said. "It was a great game, very exciting, and it was huge for us. That season, we lost a lot of games in the fourth quarter. We didn't finish as well as we would have liked, but we knew we were close. We knew we were on the verge, and that win enhanced that feeling.

"Being able to let our seniors go out with a bang and turning the program around, that game had to be a turning point for this program. Pitt was a great program in the past, and we wanted to get it back there. So, that win meant so much toward that, and I'm just glad I was a part of it.''

Malecki noted that the Panthers really weren't aware exactly what they accomplished, the stature of the victory, until long afterward. But sixth-year senior Adam Gunn, who has been around more Backyard Brawls than any teammate, says it's quite evident now.

"You can tell just by the way we've been playing since that game,'' Gunn said. "We've only lost a few games, and we've really turned this program around. It didn't just turn that season for us. That win in 2007, it meant so much to everyone associated with Pitt, players coaches and fans.

"We all learned what type of team that we could be. And ever since, we've been at another level. We won nine games last year, and we've already won nine this year with the capability to win more. That game, we might not have known it then, but it was crucial to the development of this program.''

It's been well-documented that Pitt is 19-5 since it defeated West Virginia Dec. 1, 2007, and Gunn noted that this year's senior class already has discussed the impact it can have in this game.

"We've talked about it already, the importance that it's our last Backyard Brawl,'' Gunn said. "So, we want to make it memorable, make it one nobody from either side will forget for a long, long time.''

Just like the 2007 game.

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