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INSTANT-ISH REACTION: West Virginia comes up short in the Backyard Brawl

This one stings, but you can back off the ledge of the Star City bridge

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If you thought the first Backyard Brawl back after an 11-year hiatus wasn’t going to be an instant classic, then you’ve not paid attention to what this rivalry is and always has been. Unfortunately, as is the case on occasion, the West Virginia Mountaineers were on the wrong side of that classic tonight, ultimately falling to the No. 17 ranked Pitt Panthers, 38-31, in front of the largest attended game in Pittsburgh sports history.

The loss hurts, no doubt, but there’s an odd reassuring feeling that I’m currently experiencing that says this Mountaineer squad is built differently. This is a West Virginia team that was supposed to get walked all over by the mighty, defending ACC champions. We were told that these Mountaineers were going to struggle to finish .500 this season by some outlets and prognosticators. I just didn’t see that tonight.

So let’s talk about it:

The Punt

I’m looking around social media while trying to calm my brain down long enough to get my thoughts in order, and this seems to be the point of contention with everyone right now. Neal Brown’s decision to punt after taking a delay of game penalty on 4th & 1 from Pitt’s 48-yard line does seem suspect.

The Mountaineers had just forced the Panthers off the field on the previous drive and looked to be riding a wave of momentum, up 31-24 with just over six minutes left to play. I didn’t hate the decision then — although I would’ve loved to ice the game then and there with another run from Donaldson — but I completely understand the argument against going for it.

I think (and hope) we’ll look back on this further down the road this season and it will be less of an indictment on the head coach.

CJ Donaldson

This dude looks to be every bit as impressive as advertised, finishing with 125 yards and one touchdown on seven carries. I think there’s real potential here for Donaldson to be that next player that ascends to Mountaineer legend status. It’s a lot to put on a true freshman, but he did this against an actually good defensive line — one that I’d wager stands a good chance of being the best d-line that we’ll see this season. I’m waiting to see what he does to finish out the non-conference schedule, but for right now I’m putting everyone on Grown Ass Man alert with Donaldson. I’m very, very high on him, and it’s obvious the coaching staff is too.

JT Daniels

Boy, that first drive had my nerves all a mess until I saw how Daniels recovered from that fumbled snap to hit Bryce Ford-Wheaton on a 22-yard gain up the sideline. That’s the type of play that you file away under the intangibles category and just look on in wonder. That is what this team has missed at quarterback under Neal Brown.

Daniels finished 23-of-39 (59%) for 214 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception that I won’t hold against him. He showed poise and confidence in his throws and didn’t seem to get rattled, even after the pick-six.

The only thing that concerns me at quarterback this year is Daniels’ health. He stood in the pocket and took a few shots tonight that made me hold my breath. As long as we can keep JTD healthy, I think we’re going to be just fine.

Bryce Ford-Wheaton and the Pick Six

I genuinely feel for Ford-Wheaton. He was on pace for what I’m thinking was the best game of his career (and it still may be) before the pick-six happened. 97 yards and two touchdowns on nine receptions? I’ll take that every week.

That interception is one of those things that will stay with you and haunt you after your playing days are over. There’s going to be some night, well into the future, where Bryce wakes up in a cold sweat because of that freak play.

I’ve already seen people bringing up Bryce’s problems with drops. There were a couple in this game and we can talk about later, but I’m not holding the INT against anyone. That was a classic tip drill that MJ Devonshire just happened to be in the exact right place at exactly the right time. It’s a freak play. Those happen, especially in the Backyard Brawl.

The Offensive Line, a Lingering Question

The offensive line failed to impress, but I’m not sure how much of that can be chalked up to Pitt’s d-line just being really good. This is probably the one thing I’m going to feel bad about when I finally shut down and go to bed tonight. I know we are supposed to buy into this being a veteran line, but veteran doesn’t always translate to good.

There are two weeks to tune up before heading into Lane Stadium at the end of the month. If we’re still seeing the same issues then, I’ll start getting nervous.


I know no one wants to hear it, and I absolutely hate admitting this, but I think Pitt is actually a legitimately good team. I’m not saying they’re College Football Playoff material, but you could easily sell me on them making it back to the ACC championship game this year. We’ll take the L and lick our wounds this week, but as our friends over at The Final Fourcast said:

The Numbers

West Virginia | Final Stats
Pitt | Final Stats

Final Thoughts

I’ve taken the time to get my thoughts together and look at what everyone else is saying and I just can’t manage to get mad about this game. I think that’s because I can finally see the vision that Neal Brown and Graham Harrell have for this team. I think we’ll feel a lot better when we’re sitting at 3-1 heading into October. Losing to Pitt always sucks, but this isn’t the same Pitt that knocked us out of national title contention. I’ll stand firm in my 8-4 prediction until I no longer see the vision.

West Virginia is back in action next Saturday when they open Big 12 Conference play against the Kansas Jayhawks in Morgantown. That game will kick off at 6:00PM ET and will be broadcast exclusively on Big 12 Now on ESPN+.