One of the great victims of college football realignment remains the classic regional rivalries. The West Virginia Mountaineers and Pitt Panthers used to play one of the oldest rivalries annually: the Backyard Brawl. Two teams and fanbases where acrimony reigns supreme, the Brawl finds ways to live up to the hype nearly every time the teams suit up. Last year, Pitt prevailed in a close game at home. This year, the Mountaineers won the Backyard Brawl by a final score of 17-6.
Mountaineers Win the Backyard Brawl
In a Saturday night game in Morgantown, the Mountaineer faithful striped the stadium and turned up the noise to watch the 2023 version of the Backyard Brawl, the first played in Morgantown since 2011, before the last round of realignment took the teams their separate ways.
Ground and Pound in the First Half
What would a brawl be without tough play in the trenches? The teams certainly put that theory to the test in the first half, as both the Mountaineers and Panthers threw just eight passes in the half. On the Mountaineer side, some of that was dictated by the early foot injury suffered by Garrett Greene that took him out of the game. Nicco Marchiol has played some good football. He has not, however, thrown many footballs at the Power Five level. He threw just six (completing three) in the first half.
Instead, the Mountaineers relied heavily on their veteran offensive line and their talented running backs. They amassed 71 yards on the ground over 21 carries. CJ Donaldson led the way with nine carries and 53 yards.
Pitt fared a bit better on the ground, rumbling for 105 yards on 22 carries. For the effort, however, they had just two field goals to show. Pitt starter Phil Jurkovec was not asked to do much himself, throwing just eight passes and completing just three for 33 yards. Nearing the end of the second quarter, All-Conference safety Aubrey Burks jumped a route and picked off a Jurkovec throw.
That interception set up a short seven-yard pitch and catch between Marchiol and tight end Kole Taylor for the teams’ only touchdown in the first half. As a result, West Virginia entered the locker room at halftime up 7-6.
West Virginia Holds Serve Through the Third
The Mountaineers relied on stiff defense and their ground game to hold serve through the third quarter. Just past the midway point in the quarter, the Mountaineers hit pay dirt for the second time. Donaldson bruised his way into the end zone on a one-yard rush to give West Virginia a 14-6 lead. On the next drive, West Virginia dialed up pressure on Jurkovec, causing him to throw his second interception of the game.
The Mountaineers again converted the turnover into points, though the 40-yard return by Beanie Bishop gave West Virginia a prime field position. They gained just six yards on the next three plays before Michael Hayes drew a 42-yard attempt just inside the right upright. This gave the Mountaineers a 17-6 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.
Fourth Quarter Drama
What is a brawl without fourth-quarter drama? After their opening drive of the frame stalled out, Rasheem Biles blocked Oliver Straw‘s punt setting up the Panthers with their best field position of the day at the West Virginia 48-yard line. The Panthers converted for a first down to extend the drive, and they brought the ball to West Virginia’s 27 in a fourth-and-one situation. The Mountaineers’ defensive line stood tall, however, and stuffed Jurkovec at the line of scrimmage to stop the advance.
The Mountaineers required a couple more changes of possession, however, to clinch the victory, as they punted on their next drive on a quick three-and-out. Pitt, however, failed to capitalize and turned the ball over on downs. In essence, the Mountaineers continued to hold serve in the field position battle. The defense has had its issues the last two and a half seasons, but they acquitted themselves well against the Panthers. Pitt simply had no answer offensively, and Malachi Ruffin picked off Jurkovec for the third time to seal the game with a minute left.
While we certainly would not call this a capstone win for Head Coach Neal Brown, Mountaineer fans will certainly never complain after the Mountaineers win the Backyard Brawl.