For the second time this season, Rich Rodriguez's Mountaineers surpassed even the most optimistic fan's expectations on the way to not just a win over a top-ranked squad, but a blowout win that left little doubt as to who was the best team on the field.
When the fourth quarter clock finally displayed three zeroes, it was not the ugly scene that many projected, but an unforgettable moment in time when the Mountaineer Nation sang in unison and celebrated a 52-31 trouncing of its oldest rival, the Pitt Panthers.
If it were possible to be an underdog and a favorite at the same time, this was the case for the Mountaineers as they headed into the 96th Backyard Brawl. The Panthers were the higher rated team and held an unblemished Big East record, but there has been a sense all week that this was West Virginia's game to lose, and it did not take long to see why.
While many of the Mountaineer faithful were still fighting to leap the many hurdles that had to be cleared in order to get inside of the packed house, WVU made an early statement. With a steady mix of Rasheed Marshall's arm and Quincy Wilson's legs, West Virginia drove 80 yards on nine plays to take an early lead and let the Panthers know that they were in for a fight.
Pitt, who has had the date of this contest posted in their weight room all season, made a statement of their own just five plays later. After a big return gave the Panthers great field position, Pitt coach Walt Harris put the ball in the hands of his Heisman Trophy hopeful. Larry Fitzgerald wasted no time extending his streak of consecutive games with a touchdown as he hauled in an acrobatic 23-yard grab to even the contest. This was the Backyard Brawl, and Fitzgerald and crew were not going to go down without a fight.
The early trend continued for much of the opening half as the Mountaineers fed the Panthers a steady diet of Quincy Wilson's ground attack, and Pitt countered with an all-out aerial assault led by Fitzgerald. The sophomore receiver made Lynn Swann look like an amateur as he pulled in everything he could get his hands on regardless of the defense. The Panther wideout's first half numbers were more than a game's worth as the sure handed speedster finished the first two periods with 130 yards and two touchdowns on just six grabs. Wilson was equally impressive as he rushed over, around, a through the Panther defenders. Quincy's first half was also what most would consider a great night, as the Weirton native totaled 109 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.
The battle seesawed back as the two future draft picks refused to let their team fall behind. The Panthers held a slim 24-17 lead with just 31 ticks left on the first half clock before John Pennington put up his best Larry Fitzgerald impression. Facing a fourth down and four from the Pitt 28, Rodriguez chose to keep his offense on the field instead of bringing out Brad Cooper for the kick. Rasheed Marshall took the snap, pumped, and lobbed the ball to the corner of the end zone where it appeared as though the pigskin would fall to the turf. Pennington, however, had other ideas and made the catch of the night to pull the Mountaineers back even. The Charleston native left his feet and stretched his arms to the limit to secure the ball as he fell to the south end zone turf. The highlight catch reenthused the already fired up crowd, and the bitter rivals headed to the half knotted at 24 as a overflow crowd rose to salute their heroes.
The second half began with the Panthers looking to continue the passing attack that had been so generous in the first two periods. Pittsburgh quarterback Rod Rutherford marched his team down the field with little challenge from the WVU defense and was set up with a first and goal from the West Virginia five. After a two-yard rush, a false start, and an incomplete pass, Rutherford faced third and goal from the Mountaineer eight. The Pittsburgh native looked for his tight end in the end zone, but instead found West Virginia linebacker Grant Wiley who intercepted the pass and fell to a knee for the touchback. The defensive stop swung the momentum, and eventually the game back to the Mountaineers, and they would not look back.
West Virginia would score the next 28 points with no answer from the Panthers, as the invaders from the Keystone State seemed to forget all about their biggest weapon. After six grabs in the opening half, the league's best pass catcher, Larry Fitzgerald, hauled in only three in the final two periods, and the route was on. Wilson, Marshall, and Harris all found room to run, and Pitt could simply not bring the fleet-footed Mountaineers to the ground. Rasheed Marshall found the end zone on a 12-yard keeper to start the explosion, and Wilson added three straight scores to put the game away. Pitt added a meaningless score late in the fourth, but the second half belonged to the blue clad Mountaineers.
When all was said and done, and the oversized tuning forks lowered the goal posts to the ground, the south end zone scoreboard told the story. West Virginia tallied 307 yards on the ground, compared to just 10 for the Panthers, and 216 yards passing kept the Pitt defense honest. As the minutes ticked away and fatigue set in, Pitt was simply worn down by the power attack of the Mountaineers, and even Fitzgerald was not enough to make a game of it. The Mountaineers, who at one time held a 1-4 record, moved to 6-4 for the year and are one step closer to a share of the Big East title after a 52-31 win.
To answer the question posed by the elated WVU student, no it was not heaven, it was Morgantown, but as the sounds of Take Me Home Country Roads filled the mountain air John Denver's words rang truer than ever before. This November night certainly was "almost heaven."