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FAN POST: Good, Bad & Ugly of the 105th Backyard Brawl

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

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The Good:

1. The WVU rushing attack – coming into the game, the expectation was that WVU would throw the ball much more effectively than they would run. Graham Harrell has a history of running a pass heavy scheme from his days at USC. There was also a concern that the WVU line struggled with run blocking compared to pass blocking (more on that later). Against what is projected to be an extremely strong Pitt defensive line, the WVU offensive line opened holes all night for the backs to run through. The backs definitely took advantage of those holes to the tune of 190 rushing yards (including sack yardage). Led by freshman CJ Donaldson’s 125 yards (on a 17.9 yard per carry average), WVU gashed the Pitt defense on the ground. Tony Mathis Jr. added 71 yards on 17 carries (4.2 yards per carry).

2. The WVU defensive line – led by Dante Stills, the WVU defensive line was all over Kedon Slovis all night. Totaling 5 sacks against a veteran Pitt defensive line, including two in one series in the 4th quarter, the big men up front wreaked havoc on the Pitt offense.

The Bad:

1. The WVU offensive line – all the talk during fall camp was that WVU’s offensive line would be the strength of the team, bringing back all 5 starters from last season. While I previously mentioned that they did an outstanding job run blocking, their pass blocking was a struggle all night. JT Daniels spent most of the night picking himself up off the turf. He was sacked 3 times, hurried an additional 7 times, and hit countless more times. It was clear during parts of the game that JT Daniels is extremely talented and can make all the throws when he’s allowed to remain vertical. If we can’t shore up the offensive line quickly, then our 5-star QB won’t make it through the season.

2. Tackling – I feel like this problem has been ongoing for years. While I cannot find an accurate tally of the number of tackles we missed, it felt like there was at least one on almost every play of the game. Too many times, our defenders went for the big hit trying to blow up the ball carrier rather than wrapping them up and taking them to the ground.

The ugly:

1. The 4th & inches play – With around 6:00 to play in the game, WVU coach Neal Brown was faced with a potentially game changing decision: go for it on 4th & inches with the opportunity to go up two scores or punt and try to pin Pitt deep in their own territory. Brown opted to punt. The punt was well executed with Pitt taking over on their own 8 yard line. Neal may have won the battle, but ultimately lost the war. According to ESPN, before we lined up for the 4th & inches play, WVU had an 85.8% chance of winning the game. Yale’s Undergraduate Sports Analytics Group estimated that the conversion rate of 4th & less than 1 yard was 77%.

WVU had all the momentum at that point in the game. Our run game had owned the second half. It’s hard to believe that CJ Donaldson couldn’t have picked up the necessary few inches needed to move the chains. If the thought of trusting a freshman in such a big moment, just have your experienced QB line up under center and fall forward. JT Daniels had already converted a similar play earlier in the game. This was Neal’s chance to shake the perception that he’s too conservative in his game management. Instead, Neal stole defeat from the jaws of victory. He doubled down on his decision in the post-game press conference saying he would make the same decision again.

Neal was on the verge of a potentially program changing win last night. Instead, he found a new, and gut-wrenching, way to lose. This decision has the potential to really hurt the Mountaineers. Does this cost Neal the locker room and/or fan base? Can he rally the team for next week’s game against an improving Kansas team, or will we lose the Pitt game two weeks in a row?

2. The ESPN coverage – to say ESPN was pushing Pitt over WVU is an understatement. I made the mistake of reading an article called “The Wild History of the Backyard Brawl” on the ESPN app yesterday morning. I’ll save you the trouble of reading the article. It was continued references to the 2007 upset and interviews with Pitt players & coaches about how the terrible behavior of WVU fans. Their coverage didn’t get any better during the game. With Pitt alumnus Louis Riddick in the booth, along with a shot of Pat Narduzzi between every other play, ESPN pushed Pitt at every opportunity. I didn’t keep a close count, but I can only remember seeing two WVU fans in the stands that were rumored to be nearly two thirds Mountaineer fans until the 4th quarter.

Neal Brown needs to do some serious work to get his team over an emotional loss to our biggest rival. To have a legitimate shot at making a bowl game, the Mountaineers need to be 3-1 after the first 4 games. We gave away a great opportunity to steal a win last night. How the team reacts next week against Kansas will show what kind of character they have and what kind of season we can expect.