Hard to believe it has been almost nine years since we pulled that huge upset against the West Virginia Mountaineers to kill their national championship hopes. It feels like yesterday sometimes and other times it seems like forever, especially when our program has been going through the turmoil of the recent years a long time ago.
Most Pitt fans know what happened in that game, at least the bare bones of it, but some others – especially younger fans I think – may not know the full reasons it was such a big deal event in Pitt’s football history.
We’ll get to the actual game in a bit. First let’s set the stage.
Pitt has played West Virginia in football since 1895, yes – a heated competition spanning two centuries. They have been our longest and oldest rivals, with campuses separated by only 74 road miles. It is that proximity that is a bit misleading I believe because as short as the physical difference is, the social and cultural distances between the two schools, their alumni and their fans has been huge.
I’ll share about my recollections of the football series framed in the years 1960-1978 when I was a kid going to the game with my parents and brothers (and cousins, aunts, uncles, etc…) back in old Pitt Stadium.
The first thing to realize about the two schools is that they very much reflected the geographic areas they drew their students from. We look at Pittsburgh now and see this beautiful city, cleaned up and cosmopolitan but it certainly wasn’t always that way.
We were a gritty steel town with hard ass families and generations of men and boys who played football as a form of ‘taking the easy way out’ of their hard scrabble lives.
Football was a game, as as such wasn’t the life and death, make or break hard work that went into being members of mining, steel and coal industry families. It was a game where guys got to legally knock the shit out of other guys without waking up hungover in a jail cell.
It was also, in almost all cases, the road to being the first college graduate in the family. And as much pride these tough families held in their labors, lives and family, the thought of having a son graduate and ‘better himself’ was a dream. One that was impossible without a scholarship.
The mothers certainly wanted that for their boys and as much as the fathers might verbally denigrate the kid for his passing up a solid job in the mill for a ‘fancy’ life after getting a degree – their pride in having a son in college was as strong, albeit silent, as their wife’s was.
Pitt was a good solid college who was, and still is, turning out highly intelligent and polished graduates who go on to build and contribute to society. Pitt was an urban college as well as an urbane one and drew students from the highest of society families as well as teaching the many solid middle class graduated HS students in the Pittsburgh and surrounding areas school districts.
But there was a difference when compared to West Virginia University. I’ll set aside all the jokes and slurs we Pitt fans throw out when we hear the words “West Virginia“. The fact was that WVU was a country school situated amidst the hollers and hills of that state and as such was looked at down the noses of Pitt people.
Right or wrong with that, and it could have been done more than once or a thousand times with my own family, West Virginia was, like Pitt is, a pretty good school all around.
But was it ever different than Pitt and for good reasons…
While they look at us as “Sissified City Dwellers” (I heard my dad called that once while walking down Cardiac Hill) we looked at them as “drunk on moonshine, shoeless, toothless, cousin marrying imbecilic and inbred hillbillies who couldn’t put two slurred words together without spitting tobacco down the front of their pike stained and tattered overalls” .
But I digress.
So because of the close proximity along with the wide difference type of the two schools we had a rivalry made in heaven. Schools who hated each other yet were close enough for the fans to drive to every game we played went at each other every single year – for over a hundred years.
It was The Backyard Brawl and was famous nationally. We usually played each other to tightly scored games and matches that when finished saw the players leaving all they had out on the field. There were 104 games played in total with Pitt leading the series 61-40-3.
Now that may look like a big difference in wins for us but we have to realize that a lot of those were gathered when Pitt had those 1920-1930s Glory Years and were winning national championships in bunches. The reality was that West Virginia just wasn’t nearly as powerful as Pitt was and it showed.
From the years 1924 until 1946 the two schools played 20 times with Pitt hold a 19-1 record that included 15 straight wins. Among those 19 wins we also had 11 shutouts and over all we held them to an average of 3.5 ppg.
So you can see that there was a real sense of superiority on our part coming out of the WWII years into the “modern era’ of college football and must have been the opposite effect on their fans. What I do know, and experienced was that the resentment WVU held for us was very strong and lasted for years.
The tables turned some years later though when from 1965 to 1975 WVU beat us in seven out of 10 games and sometimes giving us ass-whooping defeats. So they really started to feel good about the rivalry now that they were on top and in 1975 they beat our #20 ranked team, led by superstar RB Tony Dorsett, 20-14 on national TV.
Imagine how WVU felt the next season when Pitt was undefeated at 9-0 and ran out of the locker room onto the Pitt Stadium turf to try to keep that streak going. You know the Mountaineers dearly wanted to stop us that day and they almost did in playing a very tough and close game until we pulled away to win in the second half.
To put insult icing on that cake, once we had the win in hand we kept feeding Dorsett the ball to keep piling on yards to push his all-time career rushing record even higher record.
But the final result was that we left Pitt stadium as victors that day and went on to rack up another, ninth, national championship… to WVU’s zero.
Ahhh, the past. We Pitt fans do love to talk about it, especially the good times. But it doesn’t always stay good times.
Moving forward in time to the 2007 season there was a big reversal of fortune between the two schools in that we were the ones looking up at a better, stronger WVU program that had reeled off a 9-1 record and were placed #2 in the polls.
So this time they were on the verge of their first national championship game with a very powerful team. Led by Head Coach Rich Rodriguez and quarterbacked by the wonderful Pat White, a converted HS wide receiver who could run and pass equally well, they were an offensive juggernaut.
As a matter of fact White could run so well in 2006 he put up 220 on the ground on 22 carries (10.0 ypc) for 2 TDs in the game we lost by a 45-27 score. Which wasn’t nearly as competitive as the score indicates at all.
Alongside White in the backfield was the speedy Steve Slayton who the year earlier had also torn Pitt’s defense apart by rushing 23 times for 215 yards (9.3 ypc) and 2 TDs. But he didn’t just carry the ball that day – he also caught 6 passes for 130 yards and 2 more TDs. He killed us.
Between those two players they had 435 yards rushing for 4 TDs and 130 yards receiving for 2 TDs – 6 TDs combined. Any wonder why they were licking their lips for the return match the next season?
Enter the vagaries of sports in general and college football in particular.
Pitt sucked during the 2007 season. We went into the game with a 4-7 record and 28 point underdogs. Through a series of year ending injuries, especially for the #1 and #2 QBs, and just plain bad fortune, we were at the end of a season where we struggled to get the games behind us and the season over, win or lose.
On the flip side WVU had everything mentioned above going for them. If the game hadn’t been scheduled to be televised by ESPN over the preseason; Pitt was actually well-rated going into the ’07 season, it would never had been shown on national TV. But it was and what a treat for every viewer across the country but WVU fans.
WVU was top dog nationally as far as production on both sides of the ball. They were 3rd in rushing (297 ypg) and 9th in scoring at 39.6 ppg. Wow! add to that their stingy defense in being 9th in total defense and 18th in scoring defense at 18.8 ppg and that was a superb and well rounded team.
Pitt didn’t really have much going for them all season long. Statistically on offense we had a poor showing all year. But our defense did hold a different story. We were 5th in total defense yet when it came to giving up points, and that is the final mark of a win, we dropped to 24.5 ppg allowed – rather pedestrian.
So you can see why everyone didn’t give Pitt a chance… and revisionist history aside that was the way it was. i was on a lot of message boards and blogs, talked to a lot of fans and can say I didn’t hear one person say in seriousness we’d win that game… especially because in was being play at WVU in front of thousands of those fans I described above.
But Magic Happens. We Pitt fans really believe in that. We wish that every QB recruit is magically Danny Marino; that every running back recruit is Tony Dorset and every DE recruit is Hugh Green. So we believe wondrous things can and will happen.
The key though is to have them actually happen and they did on that Dec 1st. The Pitt team who showed up had a whole different take on that game than we fans did. I don’t know if it was excellent team leadership by the upperclassman like our fine MLB Scott McKillop – who defined leadership in his time at Pitt.
I don’t know if HC Dave Wannstedt had a revelation-like burst of inspirational energy to get the kids up for the game. I like to think so but whatever it was it clicked in all the right ways.
We threw pressure at them on defense we hadn’t seen from a Pitt team in some time. Pat White was shut down in the first half, mainly due to speed off the edge by our DEs and up the middle by McKillop on blitzes, but also by a dislocated thumb. Give that kid credit – he came back in to compete and try to rally his team but the die had been cast. We shut him down to 50 yards passing; held Slayton to 9 carries for 11 yards (1.2 ypc) and just beat the crap out of them physically.
We didn’t win that game with our offense though as we stumbled our way to 13 points on a short yardage dive and dig TD by QB Pat Bostick. But the key offensive player for us was RB LeSean McCoy who, as a true FR, topped off an excellent year rushing with 138 yards that day. His constantly getting us conversions on 3rd down kept our drives alive and more importantly ran down the game clock.
Conner Lee, our placekicker, hit two of three FGs and an extra point to give us seven points and the win margin… it was a total team effort win. From the HC down through the players and even into the equipment manager ranks I’m sure the Pitt kids pulled together for a last, WVU-killing, hurrah.
They didn’t really have to spin magic to do it after all. They used their good character, strong backs, quick legs and football smarts. They used leadership on the field and pure guts to fight at 110% to the whistle on every single play.
But most of all they used Pitt tradition.
For that one evening, in the midst of a terrible and disappointing season, they rose to the occasion and did what Pitt men have done in every walk of life and on every field wherever there is competition to be faced. They tapped into the Pitt Spirit of those sons of mill workers, miners and cokeburners who played before them… and… they… won.