Mountaineers Stop Short in the Backyard Brawl
Let us start here with a question for West Virginia Mountaineer fans. Just imagine a scenario where Head Coach Neal Brown decides to go for it on fourth-and-one at midfield with six minutes left in the game. What if WVU comes up short? Do fans still blame Brown, or do they give him credit for embodying the blue collar mentality of West Virginia demands? How you answer that question should inform how much blame you place at his feet. Regardless, Brown made the decision to take a delay of game and punt the ball. The rest, as they say, is history. Either way, the Mountaineers stop short in the Backyard Brawl.
Could Should Have Been
In the middle of the fourth quarter, the vaunted Pitt defense looked absolutely gassed. CJ Donaldson had ripped off what seemed like a dozen fifteen-yard rushes. The Mountaineers, up 31-24, had the ball at Pitt’s 48-yard line on fourth-and-one (okay, maybe fourth and a half-yard). Brown repeatedly tells the media that he wants to be able to line up against the best defense and run it down their throats, even when they know West Virginia is going to run it. This offers the perfect situation to do that.
Yes, it was risky. But, really, it was not that risky. The Mountaineer defense held Pitt to two straight punts and just seven yards on its last 12 plays. The West Virginia line was gaining leverage, and Donaldson, a player talked up all Summer, offers the perfect build for a fourth-and-inches situation. The most likely outcome here is that Pitt cannot do what it had not yet been able to do–stop Donaldson. Even in the worst case, though, Pitt takes over at midfield down seven with just over six minutes to go.
Your defense most definitely appreciates the audacity to go for broke and end the game, especially after watching a sputtering offense the last three years that barely scored 20 points most games, let alone 30 against a very good defense. Even if that defense falters, which it probably does not, you get the ball back with three minutes left and a run game that is working well. That is the basis of at least one possible narrative. Maybe it is the right one; maybe it is not. But it is certainly what fans will be talking about for a long time.
If That Happens, Our Narrative Reads Differently
If Brown goes for it, West Virginia probably scores. That’s a will-breaking call against a tiring defense. It sucks the air out of the stadium. West Virginia goes on to win by two scores against number 17 on their home turf. Then, we have a little fun writing about how Kedon Slovis screamed “F— West Virginia” in a pep rally surrounded by all his new friends thinking that he had one of the best offensive lines in the nation to protect him. So much for that, we would have written. The Mountaineers, after all, piled up five sacks against that offensive line. To make it better, three of those sacks came from two West Virginia natives in Dante Stills and Sean Martin.
Then, we get to write about how the Mountaineers, led by an air-raid offensive coordinator, managed to run for more yards against Pitt than, well, anyone else for the past two-and-a-half years. We get to write about how a maligned, mostly-Mountain-state offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage for 75% percent of the snaps. We get to focus on how this Donaldson kid is not just going to be special, but, in fact, is already special. The young man had a blocked punt and 125 rushing yards on just seven carries and a touchdown, after all.
Alas, we can still write about those things. We just did. There are still plenty of things to like about how this team fought. Their Head Coach, well, maybe not so much. And, as a result of that, more than anything else, the Mountaineers stop short in the Backyard Brawl.
But There’s More
Look, in reality, we know that football comes down to more things than just one decision and one play. We could look on the other side and say, you know, when Woods got hurt, the secondary changed a bit. Pitt’s receivers dropped several passes, at least one of which was an easy walk-in touchdown. Mountaineer receivers dropped a few beautiful deep balls from J.T. Daniels, too. The offensive line gave up some significant pressure, especially in the late-second and early-third quarters. Then, there’s Bryce Ford-Wheaton. He deserves credit for all he did well. He does not catch nine passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns by accident. His drop earlier in the game also does not happen by accident. The coverage there was actually pretty good.
But, then, he turns upfield before he catches the ball and it bounces out his hands right into former Mountaineer target MJ Devonshire‘s hands. Devonshire scampers in for a score. (Of course, this situation does not happen if Brown went for it.) In a matter of just a few minutes, a 31-24 Mountaineer lead becomes a 38-31 deficit, and that is how the game stood.
West Virginia still, incredibly, had a shot to knot the game in the waning seconds as Daniels threw an absolute dart to Reese Smith in the middle of the field. That was, quite literally, the only place Daniels could possibly have thrown the ball. In the infamous game of inches, though, a single inch mattered. In this case, an inch of the football caught the turf and Smith slid in under the throw. Game over.
There is next year. And, next year, Mountaineer fans will hate Pitt just as much as they do today, and vice versa. Perhaps the media giants pulling the strings of the current realignment, though, ought to take notice. The crowd in attendance, which was split about 60-40 in favor of Pitt fans, outsold any sporting event ever held in Pittsburgh by nearly 1,000 bodies. Perhaps this bodes well for the future of the Backyard Brawl. For now, Mountaineer Nation lives on after a 38-31 loss to its most hated rival.