Saturday, November 26, 2011
WVU rides stout defense to win over Pitt
By Andrea Adelson
West Virginia's defense was all the difference in the Mountaineer's win over Pitt.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Julian Miller showed up for interviews barefoot, with his left ankle wrapped heavily in ice. You could understand why the West Virginia defensive end needed to give his feet a break.
Miller had the most dominating performance of his career, in the final home game of his career, on his birthday no less, keying a stifling defensive effort to help the Mountaineers beat Pitt 21-20 on Friday night. West Virginia kept its Big East title hopes alive with the victory, although the Mountaineers will need some help from Cincinnati to keep their BCS dream from dying.
All West Virginia can do to help itself is win. It appeared that might not happen for a good chunk of what could end up being the final Backyard Brawl between the two longtime rivals. West Virginia could not get out of its way for a good portion of the contest, gift-wrapping just about all the scoring opportunities the Panthers had. The Mountaineers had three turnovers -- including two muffed punts deep in their own territory.
But the defense came up with one gigantic stop after another in its best performance of the season.
Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst has hinted that Tino Sunseri will be his starting quarterback in the fall.
Miller tied a single-game record with four sacks. West Virginia had 10 on the night, nine in the second half. That second half was absolutely huge for this defense, a unit that has struggled to stop its opponents this season. That it came against the worst offensive line in the Big East hardly was a surprise.
"We knew that was a weakness of theirs, and we wanted to go out there and take advantage of it," Miller said.
The Panthers now have given up 52 sacks on the season, approaching numbers put up by the Rutgers offensive line last season. When Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri needed to make a play on the final two possessions of the game, he reverted to form and took one sack after another. The final possession ended with three sacks in seven plays.
"I'm puzzled," Pitt coach Todd Graham said. "I don't understand it. You can't take sacks. We sat there and took one right after another. It is our job as coaches to get our guys to execute the system, and we absolutely did not. That was the difference."
Pitt was able to jump out to a 20-7 lead based mostly on West Virginia (8-3, 4-2) mistakes. A personal foul penalty on a missed Pitt field goal gave the Panthers new life, and they converted the opportunity into a touchdown. The two muffed punts deep in the Mountaineers' own territory were damaging, too.
But they would have been more so had the defense not held the Panthers (5-6, 4-3) to field goals in both instances. You never got the feeling the Panthers were in control of the game. They could hardly move the ball after the first half and were severely hampered when starting running back Zach Brown was unable to play in the second half because of a bruised sternum.
Where West Virginia might have hung its head at the deficit early in the season, the Mountaineers refused to get themselves down Friday night.
"I always tell the guys, 'How are we going to get back in it? What are we going to predict?'" linebacker Najee Goode said. "Me and Keith [Tandy] were like, 'We're going to get the ball and we're going to score and we're going get the ball back and we're going to score again and we're going to win 21-20.' I said, 'That sounds like a plan to me.'"
Indeed, after falling behind by 13 points, West Virginia put together a quick seven-play drive that ended when Shawne Alston ran in from 8 yards out. It took a while longer for the Mountaineers to get their game-winning drive together.
That came in the fourth quarter, and it happened thanks to a pretty gutsy play call. After a personal foul penalty on Aaron Donald gave West Virginia the ball at the Pitt 28, West Virginia spoiled a third-and-short when Geno Smith threw a pass that lost 5 yards. Coach Dana Holgorsen decided to go for it on fourth-and-6 from the Pitt 24.
"We felt like we needed to roll the dice," Holgorsen said. "We were down there and felt like we should go for it. I'm glad we did."
Smith was perfectly happy with the call, too. He converted when he threw a 9-yard pass to Tavon Austin. Alston rumbled in from a yard out to give West Virginia a 21-20 lead. It was the first lead of the game for the Mountaineers. That was all they needed to close out the win.
West Virginia held Pitt to 80 total yards in the second half -- 30 yards rushing -- and just five first downs.
"We pretty much battled every kind of adversity you can think about," Smith said. "The defense did a great job keeping us in the game throughout. They played probably the best game of the season if you ask me. Those guys have been battling all year. They're coming along, they're getting better and they really kept us in this one, and we pulled it out late."
They need to pull another one out next week in the finale at South Florida to have any shot at winning a conference title. Pitt has been eliminated from contention and needs to win next week against Syracuse to become bowl eligible.
As for whether this is the final Backyard Brawl, none of the players want to see it end.
"It's pretty much a classic every time," Smith said.