Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt was once one of the top defensive coordinators in the NFL.
And even though he hasn't been a defensive coordinator since 1992, one thing remains fairly clear -- the man still knows a thing or two about coaching defense.
Yesterday the Panthers' defense snarled and scowled and then picked apart Pat White and West Virginia's vaunted spread offense for four quarters en route to a 19-15 victory against the Mountaineers in the 101st edition of the Backyard Brawl before 63,019 at Heinz Field.
The Panthers likely should have blown the game open in the first half, but they couldn't overcome untimely penalties, questionable play calls, a rare missed field goal by Conor Lee and two first-half turnovers by quarterback Bill Stull, including an interception in the end zone near the end of the half with Pitt ahead, 7-3.
Pitt's early struggles enabled the Mountaineers to hang around long enough for White to make a big play to give his team a lead heading into the fourth quarter. But, in the fourth quarter, once the Panthers started just handing it off to standout tailback LeSean McCoy, they were able to roll down the field to score the winning points.
McCoy finished with 33 carries for 187 yards and scored two touchdowns -- including the winner from 1 yard with 52 seconds to play. It was the kind of performance that makes a player a legend, especially in a rivalry game -- but again, he was only in a position to play the part of a hero because the Panthers defense kept White and the Mountaineers in check.
It is the second year in a row that the Panthers defense dominated the Backyard Brawl, allowing two touchdowns to the Mountaineers in the past eight quarters. And more importantly, White, who ran for 440 yards and four touchdowns in West Virginia victories in 2005 and 2006, has been held to only 134 yards and one touchdown in the past two games.
West Virginia had a chance to score another touchdown, but Dorrell Jalloh dropped a pass from White in the end zone that would have given West Virginia a 10-7 lead in the third quarter. The Mountaineers had to settle for a field goal on that drive.
"What makes this win so special for this team is that this is the fifth time this year we came from behind in the fourth quarter and found a way to win the game," Wannstedt said. "When we walked off at halftime, we felt that we shot ourselves in the foot several times, and our players could have been despondent. In the second half, we regrouped and found a way to make more plays than they did. Our defense, two years in a row, we found a way to play great defense against a very good offense and a great quarterback.
"Pat White, my hat is off to him. I said earlier in the week, he is the best spread option quarterback in the country. Great players make great plays in big games, LeSean had his career high, and I think that was the difference. With Billy struggling, I thought our only chance to win the game was to play great defense and run the ball, and we did."
The victory puts Pitt (8-3, 4-2 Big East) in better position to perhaps earn a bid to the Gator or Sun Bowl. But a lot will be determined next weekend for both bowls as they also have an option for a Big 12 team or Notre Dame. West Virginia (7-4, 4-2) despite losing the game, would still be an attractive choice with a win next week against South Florida.
Pitt middle linebacker Scott McKillop said that although the Panthers' defensive game plan was much different this year than last, the goal and the key was very much the same -- contain White and make tackles in the open field.
Last year against the Mountaineers, the Panthers blitzed and simply sold out to try to stop the Mountaineers' running attack. Yesterday, they didn't blitz much and relied on their athletic defensive line to chase and contain White, while the back seven covered and made tackles.
"We pushed through it, we had a couple of people come up and make some big plays," McKillop said. "[Defensive tackle] Mick [Williams] was being Mick, and he had a bunch of tackles for losses. Against them, you have to keep [White] contained, we didn't do it that one time and he really hurt us, a couple of guys missed tackles. He made some plays -- we knew that was going to happen -- but we stopped him when we needed to.
"I'm not going to lie, we were a little frustrated [with the offense] but we kept together as a team. We knew we had to go out there and take care of business."
The one play the defense failed to make came midway through the third quarter when White made a highlight reel-caliber play, the kind that makes him so dangerous. The Mountaineers faced a third-and-4 from their own 46, and White took the snap and ran left, was stuffed, but reversed back to the right and ran 54 yards for a touchdown. McKillop said "he made us all look silly."
The touchdown gave the Mountaineers a 12-7 lead and, when they tacked on a 40-yard field goal by Pat McAfee with 11:53 to play, it appeared as if they had taken control. Then White showed he wasn't invincible and made a costly mistake.
West Virginia took possession again with a little less than 10 minutes left and faced a third-and-10 from its own 16, but White was intercepted by Pitt cornerback Jovani Chappel, who returned it to the 16.
Two plays later, the Panthers scored to pull to within 15-13, but a 2-point try was no good after a Pitt penalty pushed the ball back to the 8.
The Panthers then forced West Virginia to punt on its ensuing drive. They took over on their own 41 and ran 10 plays for 59 yards, with McCoy scoring the winning touchdown. The drive was impressive in its simplicity -- McCoy ran the ball nine of 10 plays and accounted for all 59 yards.
"Pat White played a heckuva game," West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said. "He ran well, and I thought he did a good job throwing the ball, too. The mistakes in the passing game can be attributed to bad reads. The interception in the fourth quarter was a mental error, and no one feels worse about it than Pat. I have a very disappointed quarterback right now."
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1720. First Published November 29, 2008 5:00 AM