No one could claim that the first Backyard Brawl in 11 years was lacking in excitement.
Multiple lead changes, momentum shifts and an overturned completed pass call on fourth-and-16 with 22 seconds to play that took away a chance for West Virginia, trailing by a touchdown, to tie the game from Pitt’s 1-yard line, were tips of the icebergs.
Overall, Thursday evening featured a thrilling showdown between the Panthers and Mountaineers.
For West Virginia, there certainly will be some dignity in defeat, having gone toe to toe with the No. 17 team in the nation inside a hostile Acrisure Stadium packed with 70,622 fans, the most ever assembled for a sporting event in the city of Pittsburgh.
West Virginia held the reigning ACC champions to 2.0 yards per carry, blocked a punt deep in Pitt’s territory and recovered a fumble in the loss.
The Mountaineers sacked Panthers quarterback Kedon Slovis five times and kept him off balance for much of the night while racking up 404 yards of total offense on Pitt’s defenders.
Quarterback J.T. Daniels enjoyed a solid WVU debut, going 23 of 39 with 214 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while freshman tight end C.J. Donaldson wreaked havoc on the Panthers defense, taking seven handoffs for 125 yards.
But all things considered, Neal Brown’s Mountaineers have to be feeling like they blew a pretty solid chance to head back to Morgantown with a season-opening win.
“Both sides made some mistakes, both sides capitalized on the other team’s mistakes, but I thought it was a good football game that went down to the end,” Browns said. “I thought we had a chance.”
Unquestionably, the most important play of the game occured late in the fourth quarter, with the Mountaineers putting together a promising drive.
With 2:58 to play, WVU wideout Bryce Ford-Wheaton let a beauty of a pass from Daniels go right through him, deflecting off both hands into the orbit of Pitt defensive back M.J. Devonshire, who proceeded to take it 56 yards to the house for a pick six.
Ford-Wheaton’s blunder overshadowed an otherwise excellent evening in which he led West Virginia in catches (9) and yards (97), while hauling in a pair of touchdown passes.
“If I throw Bryce 1,000 routes like that, that might happen once,” Daniels said. “It’s just a fluke and it happened. To me, as soon as that play’s over, it’s like, ‘All right, next play. Let’s go out and score.’”
Devonshire’s touchdown put the Panthers up, 38-31, but with a bit under three minutes to play, plenty of time remained for West Virginia to respond.
The Mountaineers overcame a pair of false start penalties (both to right tackle Ja’Quay Hubbard), and following a pass interference call on Pitt’s Marquis Williams, Daniels found tight end Mike O’Laughlin near the right sideline for a critical 32-yard gain.
At that point, there was 1 minute, 12 seconds on the clock.
Two sacks of Daniels in a little over 30 seconds forced a fourth-and-16 from Pitt’s 28-yard line, which is when Daniels threw a bullet over the middle to Reese Smith that was initially ruled a catch, putting WVU at Pitt’s 1-yard line with a golden opportunity to tie the game.
However, the officiating crew reviewed the play and determined that Smith did not have possession of the ball as it hit the ground off of his chest.
Thus, Pitt took over on downs with 22 seconds left and promptly ran out the clock.
After the game, Brown was clearly frustrated with the overturned call, referencing it repeatedly in his remarks to the media.
“Our last play of the game, it’s going to get shown a lot, where I thought our guy’s hands were under the ball,” he said. “If your hands are under the ball, OK, then my understanding is it’s a catch. I’m sure it’s going to get explained to me whenever (league officials) talk to me. … I need to get a clearer undertsanding of what (a catch) is.”
Daniels also addressed the play following the game, stating that from his vantage point, and per his comprehension of what constitutes a catch, Smith came down with it.
“I thought he did based on the rule,” Daniels said. “I wasn’t aware that the ball could hit the ground as long as the receiver had control. I thought he did have control, but I guess not.”
Before the dramatic finish to the game, West Virginia looked poised to capture some momentum after Donaldson managed to block a punt by Sam Vander Haar early in the third quarter.
On their opening possession of the second half, the Panthers went three-and-out and looked to punt on fourth-and-15 from their own 19-yard line.
After taking the snap, Vander Haar drifted to the right, advancing a few too many steps, to where Donaldson got his hands on the punt.
WVU’s Hershey McLauren scooped the ball and returned it 14 yards, setting the Mountaineers up with a first-and-goal from Pitt’s 5-yard line.
Moments later, Donaldson burst up the middle for a touchdown, handing West Virginia a 17-10 lead.
With a chance to tack on some breathing room and continue to silence the crowd at Acrisure Stadium, the Mountaineers instead punted on their next two possessions.
However bitter the taste is of losing a close game in a rivalry series, for West Virginia, falling on the road to a ranked team by a touchdown is far from a mortal blow early in the season.
The Mountaineers have an extended week to reload and recalibrate ahead of Sept. 10’s home opener at Milan Puskar Stadium against Kansas.
“All around, I felt great,” Daniels said. “I felt great with myself and really, the whole team in general, offense and defense. I’m really (expletive) proud of this team.”
Justin Guerriero is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Justin by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .