By Dave Morrison
Register-Herald Sports Writer
It’s almost too simple to say the 104th Backyard Brawl turned on the foot of a starter, turned backup, turned starting punter Friday night.
It would be much simpler to say the game turned on nine second-half sacks (10 all together, and four from Julian Miller).
Or the fact that WVU (8-3, 4-2 Big East) found some semblance of a run game in that second half, after being held to minus-2 rushing yards in the first half.
Then again, it is West Virginia vs. Pitt, so anything can happen.
Corey Smith’s punting didn’t make all the difference in West Virginia’s 21-20 win over the Panthers at Milan Puskar Stadium.
“He played a big part in it,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. “I give a whole lot of credit to our defense, but you can’t win it on one side of the ball. You need special teams to contribute, and you need the offense to contribute.”
The win keeps West Virginia in contention for a potential BCS berth, but the Mountaineers need Cincinnati to win its next two games and WVU has to beat South Florida next Saturday.
Smith was huge after replacing starter Mike Molinari, who was removed after a shanked punt led to a Pitt touchdown late in the first quarter.
His 60-yard punt from his own 14 helped West Virginia flip the field with 1:56 remaining.
That’s when the defense came up huge. Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri couldn’t get the ball past his own 44, and he was sacked four times on the drive. The game ended when Bruce Irvin sacked Sunseri and he fumbled. The ball was recovered by Panthers offensive lineman Ryan Schleiper, who got to the Pitt 40 before Julian Miller brought him down.
Pitt was sacked on five of its last eight offensive plays in the contest. The Mountaineers have 15 sacks in their last two games, after having just 11 in the first nine.
“We made plays when we had to make plays,” defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said, adding he couldn’t remember another 10-sack game.
The offense began to find its rhythm after the Panthers went up 20-7 on a 27-yard Kevin Harper field goal, set up by a Tavon Austin muffed punt early in the third quarter.
Shawne Alston capped a 60-yard drive — 44 yards coming on the ground — with an 8-yard run to make it 20-14.
Pitt then had three straight 3-and-outs, and after the third, WVU again came to life.
On fourth-and-6 at the Pitt 24, WVU eschewed a field goal attempt and instead went for it, and two record-setters on the evening — quarterback Geno Smith and Austin — hooked up for nine yards.
“We felt like we had to roll the dice,” Holgorsen said.
Three plays later, Alston scored again from a yard out to give WVU a lead it would hold.
In the game, Smith became the WVU single-season record holder in attempts (448), completions (291) and yards (3,741).
Austin became the single-season record-holder in receptions (82) and Stedman Bailey the leader in receiving yards for a season (1,117).
Pitt led 17-7 at the half, due mostly to West Virginia’s own ineptitude.
On the Panthers’ first possession, WVU seemed to have dodged a bullet, when Harper missed a 38-yard field goal.
However, West Virginia was flagged for a “low block” and the Panthers’ drive continued.
Pitt couldn’t score on a fourth-and-1 at the 2, but an offside penalty against the Mountaineers and a quarterback sneak gave the Panthers a first down. Zack Brown scored on the next play.
A 22-yard punt got Pitt started at its own 48 and Isaac Bennett finished off a quick drive to give Pitt a 14-0 lead.
West Virginia finally got on the board on a 63-yard pitch-and-catch from Smith to Bailey.
Bailey caught the ball in stride over the middle, stopped, stiff-armed a Pitt defender and started back to the left and outran the Panthers’ defense to the end zone.
But Pitt, for the third time, took advantage of a WVU miscue, when the Mountaineers’ Ishmael Banks got too close to a Pitt punt and the Panthers fell on it.
That led to a Harper 30-yard field goal and a 17-7 Pitt lead at the half.
West Virginia’s Darwin Cook intercepted Sunseri with 31 seconds left in the half, but Smith was sacked twice to end the half.
Holgorsen was the first Mountaineer coach to win his first Backyard Brawl since H.E. Trout beat Pitt in 1903.
WEST VIRGINIA 21, PITTSBURGH 20
Pittsburgh 14 3 3 0 — 20
West Virginia 0 7 7 7 — 21
Pitt—Z.Brown 1 run (Harper kick), 9:05.
Pitt—Bennett 6 run (Harper kick), 2:14.
WVU—Bailey 63 pass from G.Smith (Bitancurt kick), 7:31.
Pitt—FG Harper 30, 2:53.
Pitt—FG Harper 27, 11:29.
WVU—Alston 8 run (Bitancurt kick), 8:59.
WVU—Alston 1 run (Bitancurt kick), 6:10.
First downs 17 16
Rushes-yards 58-159 30-113
Passing 137 244
Comp-Att-Int 12-23-1 22-31-0
Return Yards 15 23
Punts-Avg. 10-42.8 8-46.0
Fumbles-Lost 1-0 3-3
Penalties-Yards 9-60 4-20
Time of Possession 36:27 23:33
RUSHING—Pittsburgh, Bennett 16-69, Z.Brown 15-67, Schlieper 0-18, C.Davis 2-11, Jones 3-1, Sunseri 22-(minus 7). West Virginia, Garrison 11-55, Alston 11-34, Austin 1-19, G.Smith 7-5.
PASSING—Pittsburgh, Sunseri 12-23-1-137. West Virginia, G.Smith 22-31-0-244.
RECEIVING—Pittsburgh, Street 4-50, Bennett 2-23, Shanahan 2-18, Jones 1-22, H.Graham 1-14, C.Davis 1-6, Z.Brown 1-4. West Virginia, Austin 10-102, Urban 4-41, Bailey 3-80, McCartney 3-5, De.Brown 1-9, Garrison 1-7.