The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

November 27, 2010

Backyard blowout

WVU hits stride after half, rolls to 35-10 win

PITTSBURGH — When it was over, Bill Stewart wanted to talk about the majestic mountains of West Virginia again, about the special uniforms they broke out for the Backyard Brawl that were a tribute to the 29 coal miners who gave their lives mining those mountains.

Certainly, they truly did play a role in what was a memorable victory over rival Pittsburgh in the 103rd renewal of the Backyard Brawl, but you cannot diminish the accomplishments of this football team that dug as deep within themselves as any coal mine to save its Big East life by walloping the Panthers, 35-10.

For the players who discovered things about themselves they may have suspected but could not know was there, for the coaches who had have held up to ridicule and criticism for much of this season, this was a day of redemption.

It was in some ways a game that encapsulated the entire season, for the Mountaineers’ offense was again was ragged and dysfunctional through a first half that was saved only by the defense, which itself was at its worst but still did what a defense is supposed to do, that being protecting its end zone.

WVU had ridden the horse that is its defense for the entire season, a season in which it has never given up more than 21 points, making receiver Jock Sanders’ proclamation that “if we score 21 you can put it in the books” a prophecy.

“People thought I was crazy, delusional,” Sanders would crow after this one. “But I’m not. I said it because we go out every day against the best defense in the Big East. I don’t lie. I tell the truth.”

And so it was that when the first half ended, the statistics were weighted heavily toward Pittsburgh, which led in time of possession 22 minutes and 34 seconds to 7:26, which had run 35 plays to WVU’s 16, which held Noel Devine to one carry for -3 rushing yards and the entire team to just 27 yards on 15 plays … other than one that was a back breaker.

Indeed, the banged up Devine had done very little in recent weeks, but with the game tied at 7-7, the result of an interception by cornerback Brandon Hogan that was run to the Pitt 2, from where Ryan Clarke burst into the end zone, Devine had what really was a game-changing moment.

Geno Smith threw him a little flair of a pass off to the

sideline, but Devine made a quick move and then darted up the sideline, accelerating with each step until he was finally run down just two yards from the end zone.

When tight end Will Johnson broke clean into the end zone without a Pitt defender in the same area code and latched on to a Geno Smith pass, the struggling Mountaineers were able to take a 14-7 lead into the locker room at the half.

“At halftime I was in a non-easy, non-comfort zone,” Stewart admitted after the game. “I did not see our defense in synch. We were a step behind. We couldn’t get the ball.”

Everyone was troubled by the defensive shortcomings.

“It was not pretty but we only gave up 10 points,” said linebacker J.T. Thomas.

It is difficult to imagine how that could have been, the way quarterback Tino Sunseri abused them, not only with his arm, but with his legs, going so far as to totally embarrass them twice on scrambles, having defenders fall completely to the ground on ball fakes that were more like Magic Johnson than a college quarterback.

“I’ll be riding Sidney (Glover) all the way back to Morgantown,” Thomas joked, referring to the way left Glover standing naked in the middle of the field with a fake.

Stewart got on his coaches and his players pretty hard at halftime in an effort to straighten things and they came out of the locker room much the way Clark Kent used to emerge from phone booths.

There was a lot of conversation in the locker room and, Stewart would say, “Well, nobody wanted to talk to me at halftime because I was so mad. I was the only one talking.”

Pitt did not know what hit them.

One minute and 37 seconds into the third quarter Tavon Austin broke deep on a fly pattern, leaving a defender looking as if he were running in quick sand. At the same time Bradley Starks broke free, too. Smith could have hit either but he opted for Austin, who caught the ball and ran it into the end zone for a 73-yard touchdown.

That was the straw that broke the Panthers’ back.

Up 21-7, WVU could go into its ball control offense. After running for 16 yards in the first half, the Mountaineers ran for 132 in the second half. After throwing for 59 yards in the first half, they threw for 153 in the second half.

The offensive line, which had been so badly maligned all season, took control of the game.

“I am very proud of the offensive line. In the fourth quarter, I wanted them to get an attitude that nobody could stop us. I told them get on their toes and run downhill and go get people,” Stewart said.

They ran Shawne Alston, their big back, and he finished as the game’s top rusher with 71 yards while Smith put the ball in his back pocket, finishing a truly efficient afternoon with nine completions in 12 tries for 212 yards and three touchdowns.

Now there is an improbable three-way tie atop the Big East, WVU, Pitt and Connecticut with two losses. UConn plays Cincinnati today and if the Huskies win out they win the Big East as they hold the tiebreaker over both Pitt and WVU.

If WVU beats Rutgers next week, to win the conference it needs UConn to lose to either Cincinnati this week or at South Florida.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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