Once again, Pitt is king of the backyard

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Call it Blue Friday for West Virginia. Pitt rallied to win the 101st Backyard Brawl yesterday, defeating West Virginia 19-15 in a thriller at Heinz Field. Pitt's smooth running back, LeSean McCoy, ran 1 yard for the winning touchdown with 52 seconds left, then held his breath until a last-gasp drive by the Mountaineers fell short.

Ben George, a Pitt season ticket holder, watched the game in a vintage Dan Marino jersey, brimming with enthusiasm for his Panthers. Just 26, he said it was Mr. Marino who captivated him as a player, turning him into a Pitt fan for life.

A native of Johnstown, Mr. George now lives in Green Tree. He made the trip to Heinz Field with friends, including Michael R. Jones and Amber Spiers.

She grew up in Roaring Springs, Bedford County, much closer to Penn State's campus than to Pitt's. But her father, for no discernible reason, always rooted for Pitt, so she adopted the Panthers as her team long before she settled in Brighton Heights.

"She's a smart girl. She picked culture over agriculture," said Mr. Jones, the most vocal member of his group.

Still, nobody in his crowd said a discouraging word about West Virginia, the fiercest rival Pitt has had since Penn State stopped playing the Panthers early this decade.

Mr. Jones, of Robinson, said a real fan stays loyal to his team, so his practice is never to criticize Pitt. Because the Big East Conference often is denigrated nationally as a football featherweight, Mr. Jones also is in the habit of saying charitable things about West Virginia.

"I want them to win all their games except this one," he said.

Others were not so accommodating of the visitors from Morgantown. One man wore a T-shirt that said, "Save a sofa, beat West Virginia," a reference to a pocket of Mountaineer fans who used to celebrate important victories by torching their furniture.

Most of the pregame banter yesterday was civil enough. Supporters of both schools shared beers in stadium parking lots before 10 a.m. The morning chill helped keep the mood friendly.

David Gaiser, who said he was a recent graduate of Duquesne Law School, proudly wore a West Virginia sweatshirt, even though he had no direct connection to the school.

"I grew up all over Ohio, always cheering for West Virginia," he said.

He said his father is an alumnus of WVU, and the stories he heard in boyhood transformed him into a backer of the Mountaineers.

Joe Rohrig, of Wheeling, W.Va., came to the game with a delegation of 20 supporting the Mountaineers. Pitt-West Virginia remains an event, but Mr. Rohrig said it had lost a little luster since the Panthers tore down Pitt Stadium and started playing football off-campus.

"As a West Virginia fan, I think it hurts Pitt," he said.

In the end, it was Mr. McCoy who broke the hearts of Mountaineer fans. He swerved and slashed for 183 yards and two touchdowns. His statistics might have been even more glowing had the Pitt coaches not forgotten about him on one drive that ended with a red-zone interception.

By the fourth quarter, the coaches had learned from history. They put the game in Mr. McCoy's hands almost exclusively. He carried the ball on every play but one during the decisive 59-yard drive that won the Brawl for Pitt.

Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956. First Published November 29, 2008 5:00 AM


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