MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – What happens when 12 years worth of anticipation lines up with a fanbase seeking revenge over a gut-wrenching rivalry loss?
Throw in a vibrant crowd that likely won’t be matched all year. Add an injury to the starting quarterback in the first quarter, and the result is a grit-filled rivalry game for which Morgantown has been starving for over a decade.
The city can rest easy following a 17-6 win over Pitt (1-2) in the 2023 Backyard Brawl that avenged last year’s loss in Pittsburgh.
But, as many know, it probably won’t.
For WVU (2-1), things didn’t start as cheerfully as they finished Saturday. Like last week against Duquesne, WVU left a lot to be desired in the first quarter.
Before the Mountaineers received the ball, Pitt marched all the way inside the WVU 10-yard line on 10 runs (no passes) for 67 yards, a successful field goal and a 3-0 lead.
“[It] wasn’t necessarily an ‘uh-oh’ [moment],” Brown said. “Because we were able to hold them to a field goal. If you want to go back and really think about some big drives of the game, I think that was as big as any of them.”
The game was officially flipped on its head early when WVU starting quarterback Garrett Greene left with an ankle injury shortly after in the first quarter before even completing a pass. Greene would later appear on the WVU sideline in street clothes, signaling an early end for the Florida native in the Backyard Brawl.
In turn, redshirt freshman Nicco Marchiol received his most extensive work as a Mountaineer.
It took a while for the Arizona native to get going in relief for Greene. Marchiol (6-for-9, 60 yards, one touchdown) didn’t complete either of his first three pass attempts before finding tight end Kole Taylor for on a 13-yard play-action pass completion in the second quarter.
On the same drive, just as the WVU offense started to click down 3-0, Marchiol fumbled an exchange with running back CJ Donaldson inside the Pitt 10-yard line for its second turnover of the game.
What should’ve been a turning point for the Panthers turned into disaster for Pitt when two plays later, quarterback Phil Jurkovec lofted a questionable ball downfield as he was hit in the backfield. WVU safety Aubrey Burks was in perfect position to make the interception, and he returned it all the way to the Pitt 7-yard line.
Two plays later, Marchiol cashed-in on his first passing touchdown of the season on a seven-yard connection with Taylor (three receptions, 21 yards, one touchdown) that was nearly identical to his first completion Saturday night for the 7-3 lead.
WVU brought a 7-6 lead into the halftime locker room after a Pitt field goal with seconds remaining in the half.
A team’s first offensive drive of the second half can be considered its most important of the game, and that’s where WVU delivered its dagger to Pitt’s heart Saturday night.
On their first second-half possession, Marchiol and co. surgically crafted a 13-play, 46-yard drive that ran seven minutes and 48 seconds off the clock. Donaldson (18 carries, 102 yards, one touchdown) capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown score, giving WVU a 14-6 lead.
If the second WVU touchdown wasn’t the deciding factor, its second interception on defense certainly was.
On the ensuing Pitt drive, Jurkovec overthrew his intended target downfield, and the ball ended up in the hands of WVU cornerback Beanie Bishop for Bishop’s second interception of the season. He returned the ball 40 yards to the Pitt 30-yard line, and kicker Michael Hayes drilled his first attempt of the the year for a 17-6 lead.
“We’re a tough football team,” Brown said. “We’re a mentally tough football team. We’re a physically tough football team, and I thought that showed. It was ugly, and we can play ugly ball.”
On top of Burks’ and Bishops’ interceptions, the WVU defense was led by linebackers Trey Lathan (eight tackles) and Lee Kpogba (seven tackles). Defensive tackle Mike Lockhart recorded 1.5 tackles for loss, and defensive end Tomiwa Durojaiye completed at least a half-tackle for loss in the third-straight game.
“We’ve been probably fairly criticized over the last year-and-a-half that we haven’t played [well defensively],” Brown said. “Especially in the secondary, we haven’t played as well. Well, those guys go out tonight and they get three interceptions. Pitt struggled the entire game.”
WVU bandit Tyrin Bradley recorded the lone Mountaineer sack of the night.
It was the fifth time in the Neal Brown era that WVU allowed six points or fewer.
Saturday’s attendance of 61,106 was the largest crowd at Milan Puskar Stadium since the Texas game in 2019. A chunk of that total will make the quiet drive up I-79 tonight back to the Steel City.
For many others staying in Morgantown, the night is just getting started.