Anything goes in Panthers-Mountaineers rivalry

The way Johnny Majors remembers it, Tony Dorsett lost his cool only once during his magnificent career at Pitt.

Do we need to tell you it happened against West Virginia?

A lot of weird things happen when these two schools -- separated by just 75 miles -- hook up for their annual "Backyard Brawl," which plays out for the 98th time Thursday night (ESPN, 8 ET) in Morgantown, W.Va.

"It's like the Hatfields and the McCoys," Majors said. "I've been around a lot of great rivalries, and this is one of my favorites."

In the 1976 game, Dorsett got kicked out in the final moments of Pitt's 24-16 win. It proved to be the Panthers' narrowest margin of victory in their 12-0, national championship season under Majors.

"He got speared right in front of our sidelines," Majors said. "I don't believe they penalized the guy, and Dorsett threw the ball at him. I never, ever saw Tony lose his poise. Nothing like that had ever happened. That's something that would only happen in the West Virginia game."

Dorsett remembers the incident a bit differently.

"All game long they were agitating me, trying to do things to get me in a different mind-set," he recalled. "Every time in the pileups, guys were pinching me, scratching me, doing all kinds of stuff. This one particular time, there was a pileup, and somebody grabbed me in my crotch. I just went off. I think I threw the ball at him, and a big brawl broke out."

Hey, they don't call it the Backyard Brawl for nothing. The worst part of the deal for Dorsett was that he lost an important streak.

"Going into that game, I think I was on track to either tie or set an NCAA record for consecutive 200-yard games," he recalled. "Right before [the incident], I made sure I went over 200 yards. But on the play it happened, I got thrown back to 199.

"Oh well. The important thing was that we won."

Current Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt played at Pitt and was a graduate assistant on the '76 team, so he didn't need a primer on the rivalry. Pitt enters with a disappointing 5-5 record (4-2 Big East), but can salvage its season and become bowl eligible with a victory over the 12th-ranked Mountaineers (8-1, 5-0), who likely will have to win Dec. 3 at South Florida to win the Big East no matter what happens Thursday.

"If we had 10 wins or no wins, I don't know if we'd approach it any differently," Wannstedt said. "It's West Virginia. It's national TV. It's a conference game. It's our biggest rival. There are enough reasons to be motivated for this one."

Wannstedt used an old Majors tactic this week in practice, blaring the John Denver song "Take Me Home, Country Roads" -- the West Virginia anthem -- over the loudspeakers. As of Tuesday morning, anyway, Wannstedt had not gone to the extremes Majors did leading up to the 1973 game.

That was Majors' first year at Pitt, and he was willing to try anything to reverse the program's luck in Morgantown, where it hadn't won since 1963. For starters, he had his defensive backs tape fly swatters (without the screens) across the insides of the tops of their helmets. The idea was to put them in a mind-set to stop the Mountaineers' star receiver Danny Buggs.

"To kill Buggs, you know," Majors said.

The coach also had his team drink only Mountain Dew at practice all week and played "Country Roads" ad nauseam -- before, during and even after practice in the locker room.

"No bebop music, no jazz," Majors said. "They showered pretty fast, they got so sick of that damn thing.
We had a little humor in it, but it was serious business. We went down there pretty loose and confident."

The Panthers won 35-7 in a game Majors calls one of his personal favorites. In fact, he said, it served as the turning point for a program that had gone a decade without a winning season.

Wannstedt hopes this year's game will prove to be a similar turning point for his program, but the Mountaineers are heavily favored for good reasons. They have more speed than Pitt on both sides of the ball and an advantage along the lines.

This WVU team also has a different mind-set than the one that came to Heinz Field last season. Star receiver Chris Henry was suspended for the game, which was fairly indicative of how that squad was easily distracted and not overly mature. It wound up blowing a chance to clinch a BCS bowl bid by losing a late lead and the game, 16-13.

This year's team, according to senior safety Mike Lorello, is "much different."

"This team really cares about each other," he said. "We don't care who makes the big plays or gets the notoriety. We just want to win."

Redshirt freshman quarterback Pat White has been on a roll, and true freshman tailback Steve Slaton is an emerging star. As usual, the Mountaineers also come into the game with a few Western Pennsylvania products who feel Pitt overlooked them in the recruiting process. Included this year are standout center Dan Mozes (Washington High), wide receiver Vaughn Rivers (Perry Traditional Academy), safety Eric Wicks (Perry) and kicker Pat McAfee (Plum).

"Pitt didn't show much interest in me or my [Perry] teammate, Wicks," Rivers told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "It's not that we feel betrayed. I don't have any regrets, but I guess I'm playing with a chip on my shoulder. From a personal standpoint, this is my big game. I can't wait."

Neither can Pitt linebacker H.B. Blades, who said of the Mountaineers, "They consider us the city boys. They think we're arrogant."

That begged the question: If the Panthers are the city boys, what are the Mountaineers?

"They're the country boys," Blades said. "They're out in the middle of nowhere. There's nothing in Morgantown, really."

Lorello, for one, wasn't biting on that comment.

"I don't think anybody's a city boy," he said. "I'm from Columbus, so I could be considered a city boy, too."

Dorsett had a little story about the city boys-country boys thing.

"People say I'm crazy, but there's one thing I'll never forget," he said. "It might have been my freshman year up there, and it was the song their band was singing. It went, 'Go back, go back, go back to the woods. Your coach is a farmer, your team is no good.'

"I was like, do they know where we're from? We're from Pittsburgh, man, We're from the city."

This marks the first year since 1965 that two alums of the respective schools have coached against each other. WVU coach Rich Rodriguez (2-2 against Pitt) played for the Mountaineers in the mid-1980s, back when the game was staged early in the year.

"It kind of set the tone for the season," he said.

As one might imagine, this rivalry has seen it all in 97 meetings. Start with comebacks. In 1970, Pitt trailed the visiting Mountaineers 35-8 at halftime but roared back to beat Bobby Bowden's boys 36-35 on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Dave Havern to Bill Pilconis with 55 seconds left.

That might have been topped by what happened in 1989 in Morgantown, when both teams came in ranked in the top 10, and Pitt trailed 31-9 with less than 10 minutes remaining. Quarterback Alex Van Pelt rallied the Panthers to a 22-point comeback, and Ed Frazier's 42-yard field goal as time expired accounted for the 31-31 final score.

In 1983, seventh-ranked West Virginia (4-0) trailed the unranked Panthers 21-17 late in the game but rallied to win when Jeff Hostetler engineered a 90-yard drive, capping it with a 6-yard touchdown run.

Few meetings had more buildup than the 1975 game, when both teams entered 6-2 and ranked. Pitt was favored, but with the game tied, West Virginia got the ball with 18 seconds left at the Pitt 48. Bill McKenzie kicked a 38-yard field goal on the final play to give the Mountaineers a 17-14 victory.

Lately, there always seems to be something big at stake.

The Panthers won in dramatic fashion last year -- and took a big step toward the Fiesta Bowl -- when quarterback Tyler Palko completed four third-down passes on a late go-ahead touchdown drive.

In 2003, Pitt arrived in Morgantown 4-0 in the Big East and riding high after a 31-28 victory over Virginia Tech. But the Mountaineers blew open a close game in the second half and whipped Larry Fitzgerald's Panthers 52-31.

Everybody thought the 2002 game at Heinz Field was for a Gator Bowl bid (Notre Dame would sneak in and take it that year), and Pitt was newly ranked and coming off a narrow 28-21 loss at Miami on national television. Mountaineers quarterback Rasheed Marshall wound up stealing the show, passing and running for touchdowns (and even catching a long pass) in a 24-17 victory. Fitzgerald dropped a pass in the end zone that might have forced overtime.

In 1954 and '55, Pitt ruined perfect seasons for the Mountaineers. The Panthers can't ruin the Mountaineers' season this time around, but they could sure ruin their Thanksgiving night.

Pitt leads the series 59-35-3. West Virginia is 11-5-1 in the past 17 meetings.

"It's obviously one of the best feelings in the world when you walk off the field after beating Pitt," Lorello said. "And you don't really need anything extra to get you motivated. You kind of hear about it every day."

Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.