Pitt rallies late to secure 38-31 victory against West Virginia

Pitt survived soft run defense, a slow-developing ground game of its own and six lead changes, but rallied to defeat West Virginia, 38-31, on Thursday night in the 105th Backyard Brawl at Acrisure Stadium.

A crowd of 70,622 — an all-time record for a Pittsburgh sporting event of any variety — watched the Pitt defense crumble before providing the deciding points in the fourth quarter.

The Panthers trailed 31-24 for about seven minutes of the final quarter before quarterback Kedon Slovis hit running back Izzy Abanikanda for a 24-yard touchdown to tie the score with 3 minutes, 41 seconds left.

Then, Aliquippa graduate M.J. Devonshire secured a pass that deflected off the hands of WVU wide receiver Bryce Ford-Wheaton and weaved 56 yards for the tie-breaking touchdown with 2:58 to play. It was the second late, clutch interception of Devonshire’s Pitt career. He picked off a pass in overtime to help Pitt defeat North Carolina last season.

Pitt had trouble generating a run game until Rodney Hammond Jr. replaced Abanikanda, the starter who was out of the game early. Abanikanda had 15 yards on eight carries before re-entering to trigger the rally. Hammond scored twice, gaining a total of 74 yards on 16 tries.

Slovis threw for 308 yards, hitting 16 of his 24 attempts. Pitt surrendered 205 yards on the ground — 125 on seven carries by C.J. Donaldson and 71 on 16 by Tony Mathis.

With the score tied 24-24 in the fourth quarter, the Panthers allowed runs of 39 yards by Donaldson and 23 by Mathis, leading to quarterback J.T. Daniels’ 1-yard dive for a tie-breaking score and a 31-24 lead.

Daniels completed 24 of 39 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns.

After the score was tied 10-10 at halftime, Pitt failed to gain control at the outset of the second half and found itself trailing.

After a three-and-out that included a sack of Slovis, Donaldson blocked freshman Sam Vander Haar’s punt and Hershey McLaurin returned it 14 yards to the 5-yard line. Donaldson finished the drive on the next play, giving WVU a 17-10 lead less than two minutes into the second half.

Pitt countered with fullback Daniel Carter’s 1-yard dive into the end zone after Slovis connected with Jared Wayne on a 64-yard pass-and-run.

Hammond was next up for a big gain through air, catching a short flip from Slovis and sprinting 49 yards to the 11. On the next play, Hammond dragged West Virginia and Pitt players into the end zone for a 24-17 Pitt lead with 3:42 left in the third quarter.

But nothing came easy for Pitt throughout the entirety of the game, and the Mountaineers tied the score on Daniels’ 16-yard touchdown pass to Ford-Wheaton on the first play of the fourth quarter.

West Virginia scored the game’s first touchdown while Pitt’s ground game couldn’t find its necessary rhythm.

After Donaldson’s 44-yard run to the Pitt 10-yard line, Daniels hit Ford-Wheaton for a score with 12:45 left in the second quarter.

The touchdown eliminated Pitt’s 3-0 lead, created by sophomore Ben Sauls’ 42-yard field goal with 37 seconds left in the first quarter. The drive started at the Panthers’ 3.

The field goal was the first attempt of Sauls’ collegiate career after he won the job from incumbent Sam Scarton during training camp.

Pitt’s score was set up almost exclusively by Slovis, who completed all four of his attempts for 55 yards and scrambled for 14 during the drive.

An exchange of fumbles led to Pitt’s short-lived 10-7 lead.

First, Panthers wide receiver Bub Means lost a fumble after a 14-yard reception. The ball was retrieved by Mountaineers linebacker Lee Kpogba at the WVU 32.

Two plays later, Pitt free safety Erick Hallett recovered wide receiver Kaden Prather’s fumble at the WVU 35-yard line. The ball was poked loose by cornerback Marquis Williams. Pitt needed six plays to take the lead on a 4-yard run by Hammond.

West Virginia countered with a 13-play, 74-yard possession that ended with Casey Legg’s 24-yard field goal on the last play of the first half.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at jdipaola@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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