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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The Mountaineer walked slowly down a ramp under the end zone stands, back to the site of the calamity.
Rifle in one hand and Gatorade squirt bottle in the other, the West Virginia mascot stopped and stared vacantly at the field. The Pittsburgh band played giddily not far away. Behind him, the scoreboard registered the incredible truth: Pitt 13, West Virginia 9.
A television reporter begged him to come on the air. He shook his bearded head.
A moment later, he dropped to one knee and sobbed.
The Backyard Brawl became a backyard bawl.
It was a tear-jerking, title-killing, torture-chamber night in Morgantown. Dreams died, and couches were spared. The Mountaineers rather epically choked away a rare chance to play for the national championship.
"Just a nightmare," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. "The whole thing's a nightmare."
"Nightmare," he repeated. "Flat-out nightmare."
They were four quarters from the French Quarter, then they fought like France with it all on the line. It was a fold-up of historic proportion, and it was completely fitting.
The craziest regular season in college football history was not going to end without one last outrageous plot twist. It was not going to end without throwing the odious BCS into complete anarchy (Does anyone want to play for the national title?). It was not going to end without a seventh loss in the past two months alone by a team ranked No. 2 in the nation, six of them to unranked opponents.
And it was not going to end without a result as shocking as Appalachian State beating Michigan and Stanford beating USC. Given the stakes, it might even be more shocking.
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"Their fans are stunned," said a Pitt university cop into his cell phone outside the raucous visiting locker room. "They're in absolute disbelief."
That was an utterly apt description. Thousands of fans shuffled out of Milan Puskar Stadium in near-total silence, punctuated only by the occasional shouted profanity.
They had come for a coronation, a walkover win against a feeble rival that was 4-7 for the season. The Mountaineers were four-touchdown favorites. They were at home against an opponent that hadn't won on the road in 14 months.
And they scored one touchdown, tacking on an intentional Pitt safety on the game's final play. It was the fewest points West Virginia had scored since the 2003 season.
Of all the inconceivable losses by teams ranked No. 2 this season, this was the worst. The hardest to see coming -- and the hardest to swallow for the losers.
"I don't want to talk about that No. 2 curse," defensive lineman Johnny Dingle said firmly. "It happens, you know? We didn't finish it. We didn't close it out."
And they didn't close it out against their archrivals. That roughly doubled the pain for the home team and doubled the delight for the visitors.
"Hey, we shocked the world tonight," crowed Pitt offensive lineman Mike McGlynn. "It's the Backyard Brawl. Anything can happen, baby."
Even a rivalry as intense as this one had never seen a result quite this surprising in its 100-year history.
"Everyone [in the media] was counting Pitt out," West Virginia fullback Owen Schmitt said. "That stuff gets to a team."
Pitt already had all the motivation it needed, then got a little more on the way into the stadium. Coach Dave Wannstedt, freshly rewarded with a three-year contract extension, said the Panthers' team bus was hit with a rock on the way to the stadium. LeSean McCoy, Wannstedt said, stood up and said, "Hey, it's just like the movies."
Come on, LeSean. They don't make movies this unlikely.
The night began inauspiciously for the Mountaineers, with rock-solid kicker Pat McAfee gagging two short field goals. He was 11-of-13 for the season before this game but missed wide left from 19 yards at a tough angle and wide right from 32 in the first quarter.
Then it got worse.
|Pat White, Steve Slaton and the Mountaineers won't be on the sidelines in New Orleans.|
Pat White dislocated his right thumb with 5:12 left in the second quarter. Backup Jarrett Brown, hero of WVU's victory over Rutgers last year off the bench, was ineffective this time, producing just 57 yards of offense running and throwing. White came back and tried to lead a miracle comeback in the fourth quarter but couldn't produce.
Running back Steve Slaton, who began the year among the Heisman Trophy favorites? He went MIA, gaining 11 yards on nine carries. West Virginia's lightning-strike offense didn't produce a play longer than 21 yards all night. The Mountaineers fumbled the ball away three times and failed to take advantage of two highly dubious holding calls on Pitt receiver Oderick Turner that helped keep the game close.
As the misfortunes mounted, you could almost hear the dread building in the crowd of 60,100. The fans sounded tight, and you wondered whether the Mountaineers were playing tight.
"I don't know," Schmitt said, when asked whether his team was tense. "I don't know, really. There was a lot of pressure, obviously."
Pitt had no pressure at all. It rode the legs of sensational freshman McCoy (148 yards on 38 carries), made two big plays in the passing game and basically hung on for dear life after taking the lead in the third quarter. The best thing it did was to chew up the clock and keep WVU's offense off the field.
"It's probably the quickest game I've played in my life," Schmitt said. "And the most depressing."
Someone mentioned to Schmitt that his coach had called the game a nightmare, then asked whether he had his own word to describe it.
"Maybe a disaster," he offered. "I don't know."
In fact, there isn't a word strong enough to describe how bad Saturday night was for West Virginia. So bad that it made a mountain man cry.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.