MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia last night lost one of the most important football games in its 116-year history, the one that would have dropped it into a national championship game it might well have won, and the color in its face went from gold to blue.
Losing not only to rival Pitt, but also losing a Jan. 7 Superdome date -- all in one night -- will do that to you.
With squandered opportunities and misty-eyed fans strewn about Mountaineer Field, the second-ranked-and-about-to-plummet Mountaineers became yet another poll victim when they got pole-axed by Pitt in the 100th Backyard Brawl, 13-9.
West Virginia (10-2, 5-2 Big East), which still got the door prize of the conference title and its guaranteed Bowl Championship Series berth, was the seventh No. 2 team to lose to an unranked foe in the past nine weeks, a zany stretch almost unprecedented in college-football annals.
The Mountaineers find out today if they get to allow their alumni and fans to hold onto those New Orleans airfares ordered this past week if they get a berth in the Sugar Bowl. Just as likely, if not more so, they may well find themselves matched against border rival Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl in Miami.
"It hurts," Mountaineers center Mike Dent said after the USA Today No. 1-ranked team and the BCS plus Associated Press No. 2, after a Division I-A-leading six consecutive victories, sustained this crushing loss. "It's disappointing. Things just didn't go our way. Small stuff.
That extra security to keep West Virginia students off the field? It was used mostly in the Panthers' corner, where they and their fans rejoiced an upset by a Pitt team (5-7, 3-4) that was a 281/2-point underdog.
Pitt's LeSean McCoy, establishing a conference rushing record for a freshman season, rumbled 38 times for 148 yards -- outgaining the vaunted Mountaineer ground attack by himself. West Virginia garnered only 104 yards on 41 rushes, their lowest total in several seasons and barely one-third of what they had averaged this season in ranking second among 119 major-college teams.
"Hey, we're still Big East champs," Ed Ritzer of Scenery Hill, Pa., yelled to the departing Mountaineers fans, who answered mostly in angry stares or sarcastic chortles.
"We had plans [to go to New Orleans], but the plans are now kyboshed. Pitt-West Virginia is the game of the century. This was the game of the century, too -- the 100th game," he said.
It was historic, too.
This marked Pitt's first victory over a No. 2 team since upending Georgia in the 1982 Sugar Bowl, a quarter-century ago. It arguably was Pitt's biggest upset in ... well, archaeologists are still digging to find out.
For West Virginia, it could mean sinking to a crowded bottom as the Mountaineers' most dismal loss in their century-plus history. They were drubbed by Florida, 41-7, in a 1993 Sugar Bowl with a remote chance at a national championship. They were beaten by Notre Dame, 34-21, in a 1988 Fiesta Bowl for the title. And they were flat on their back, the rug leading to Jan. 7 and the Superdome pulled out from underneath them, by unranked yet unruffled Pitt last night.
With Panthers loudly and giddily celebrating in the visiting locker room over his left shoulder, West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez struggled from the start of his post-mortem.
He glumly walked into the Puskar Center players' lounge, underneath the stadium's south stands. His hands were plunged in his pockets. He yanked them free to wipe his face once, then twice. He exhaled deeply. He struggled to keep his composure, pausing for 30 seconds as the Pitt din grew louder.
"Well, we're obviously disappointed," Rodriguez began. "Certainly, it was just off all day offensively. ... Just off. Just off.
"We picked a bad time to play our worst game offensively this year," added Rodriguez, whose Mountaineers last scored so few points some 47 games ago, in a 2003 Gator Bowl loss to Maryland, 41-7. They averaged barely 3 yards a play, on 183 total yards on 57 snaps.
Quarterback Patrick White missed almost half the game with a dislocated thumb on his right, non-throwing hand, but even when he came back on the field with an Ace bandage around his hand, he couldn't work magic on two possessions inside the Pitt 35-yard line in the final six minutes.
"It's tough on everybody with this program. Tough to deal with. It's going to be a long month. Hopefully, we can bounce back."
He stressed that his Mountaineers were focused all week on Pitt and not distracted by the BCS title chance. If they had won, they would've played for a third possibility at a national championship in the past 18 years, with Pitt last playing for one in 1976 and Penn State in 1987. Yet after Brown replaced White and rallied West Virginia to a 7-0 lead shortly before halftime, Pitt proceeded to score 13 unanswered points and stymie the Mountaineers' offense.
"I didn't sleep well all week," Rodriguez allowed afterward. "I won't for a while now."
Chuck Finder can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1724.