Turnovers Doom Pittsburgh in Lopsided Backyard Brawl
"You look at the scoreboard and can't believe that is the score," said Pitt defensive tackle Chas Alexcih following the Backyard Brawl.
The Panthers spotted the Mountaineers a 14-7 halftime lead, later stretched to 21-7 to start the third quarter when Geno Smith found Tavon Austin downfield for a 71-yard strike. "The (air) kind of came out of the balloon after that," said Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt. At that point the Mountaineers had three touchdowns against just two first downs. Guess who the obvious culprit was in such a lopsided outcome?
Turnovers, of course.
Panthers quarterback Tino Sunseri started the show off with an interception the Mountaineers took back to the Panther two-yard line. A touchdown followed. Three drives later, normally reliable back Dion Lewis fumbled the ball near the Mountaineers' 20-yard line. West Virginia returned that to near midfield. Back Ray Graham took up the act with another fumble of his own, this time deep in Panthers territory. West Virginia again took advantage to grab the 14-7 lead.
By halftime the score held without any real offensive output from West Virginia. Pittsburgh had the decided yardage edge, 205 to 75, and a 12 to 2 first down edge. "I thought in the first half, the way our defense played, special teams, and the way we were moving the ball on offense that we really had opportunities and the turnovers prevented us from taking the lead," said Wannstedt.
Added West Virginia coach Bill Stewart, "Pitt was knocking on the door all day, but we didn't let them in."
The back breaker happened early in the fourth quarter when Sunseri mishandled a bad snap while driving into Mountaineer territory. "I should have just fell on it, but I tried to pick it up and made a play but they recovered it. It goes back to the fundamentals of football and that's to just fall on the ball. I didn't do that," he said
Once again, West Virginia pounced, turning the 28-10 lead into a rivalry beatdown, 35-10.
If the game – and this season – were a fairy tale analogy, it was definitely The Tortoise and the Hare. Pittsburgh raced out to a huge lead during the season, just as it raced to a huge yardage advantage against its rival. But, be it because of arrogance or incompetence, the Panthers fell off pace and barely noticed as competitors caught up and then passed them by. Said Wannstedt, "Everybody understood and approached it and prepared I thought as well as we could have prepared for this football game."
Sunseri defended the game plan and preparation, but few others in the building are likely to credibly believe it following the outcome.
West Virginia simply didn't have to do anything special to win this game, and for almost three quarters, clearly didn't. Most of the Panthers' six fumbles were from bad snaps and clean strips rather than a swarming defensive effort. They simply didn't protect the ball and committed the errors at the worst possible time, every time. Two happened on what appeared to be scoring drives, and two gave West Virginia superb field position.
Coaches never tire of "coach speak," but games like this go a distance in justifying such annoying speech.
And so the Panthers have bled their conference lead, leaving Wannstedt to rescue the season next week against Cincinnati, although it may not be enough with the sound of ever-sharpening knives in the background being made by the Panthers fan base.
The crazy thing is Pittsburgh can still capture the Big East championship and head to a BCS bowl, but games like this one, a 25-point loss at home against a rival in the bitter cold, aren't easily forgotten or forgiven.