The Coleumn: The Backyard Brawl needs to be played every year

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There was no better game to kick off the first official week of the 2022 college football season than this one. On September 1, the unranked West Virginia University Mountaineers traveled 75 miles up Interstate 79 into Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to play the No. 17 University of Pittsburgh Panthers at Acrisure Stadium (formerly known as Heinz Field). 

Both teams entered the battle with a fire in their eyes and a new quarterback under center. For the Mountaineers, that guy was JT Daniels, the transfer from the University of Georgia who lost his starting role to Stetson Bennett last year. Daniels got picked by the coaching staff as the replacement for Jarret Doege, who transferred to Troy University after being a two-year starter for the Mountaineers. The Panthers found their guy in Kedon Slovis, who transferred from USC. He had the high-stakes responsibility of succeeding Kenny Pickett, Pitt’s best quarterback since Dan Marino. 

While West Virginia had neither an AP vote nor a ranking, any assumptions about how this game was going to go could be thrown out the window. When these schools get together, you never know how the game will end until it actually happens. 

In other years, this matchup receives little attention, given that one team is in the ACC and the other is in the Big 12. However, this was the first meeting between both schools since 2011, West Virginia’s final season in the Big East. The fact that these schools failed to duke it out on the gridiron once in that 11-year gap is a travesty. 

As a result of more than a decade of waiting, the hype around this game rose to levels seen before Ohio State University and the University of Michigan go toe-to-toe. Even I looked forward to watching the madness. This was a rivalry with a history of incredible moments, notably highlighted by “13-9” from the 2007 season, and the 105th edition of the Backyard Brawl was not going to disappoint. 

What we got on our televisions that night was nothing short of special. This was not peak Big East basketball; this was peak Big East football. This was not the University of Connecticut vs. Syracuse University, one of the Big East’s biggest basketball rivalries; this was the Backyard Brawl.  

Both teams traded punches like they were Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Tensions boiled in a hostile environment. Both quarterbacks threw for over 200 yards and had at least one touchdown. Each team lost a fumble while forcing at least two. West Virginia wider receiver Bryce-Ford Wheaton flashed potential with a 97-yard, two-touchdown evening. 

There were seven lead changes and a total of 69 points scored in 60 heart-throbbing minutes, even though it was 10-10 at the break after the Mountaineers tied the game on a field goal. What may have felt like a defensive battle was going to be turned on its head. Both teams found the end zone within the first five drives of the second half and exchanged touchdowns between the third and fourth quarters. 

West Virginia rolled early in the final frame. After tying the game at 24 and forcing a Pitt punt, the Mountaineers had a prime opportunity to snatch the lead. In 74 swift seconds, West Virginia marched 72 yards down the field and Daniels ran the ball into the endzone for the go-ahead score. Thoughts of an upset filled the stadium as fans realized that a statement win by the Mountaineers was on the horizon. Given the historic nature of the rivalry however, the results remained up in the air. 

Plenty of players etched their names into the history books that night, but the one that stood out the most was MJ Devonshire. Acrisure Stadium lost their voices when Pitt tied the game with three minutes and change. What Devonshire did on the second play of the ensuing drive caused Panthers’ fans to lose their minds.

With a fresh set of downs, Daniels surveyed the field and found a wide-open Ford-Wheaton. With that much space around him, there was no doubt someone made a big play. Except Ford-Wheaton did not make the play. He never came up with the catch either as it deflected off his hands and into Devonshire’s grasp. Once he got a hold of it, Devonshire scrambled and never looked back as the fans erupted like a volcano. In the span of 43 seconds, the Panthers went from down 24-31 to leading 38-31. 

West Virginia charged down the field hoping they could force overtime. With their backs against the wall on fourth down, Daniels found Reese Smith one yard short of the goal line. Had he completed the catch, the Mountaineers could have easily tied the game. However, the ball hit the ground first and video review called the play an incomplete pass. Pitt got the ball back and sealed the deal, ending their three-year losing streak in the series.

This was one of the better contests in the first official week of the season — up there with the Florida State vs. LSU game — but this matchup did more than boost excitement for football. This game explained a lot about the state of both programs as well as the state of college football. 

We have to start with both programs, who left it all out on the field. Pitt showed that even though Pickett has moved on to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Slovis can be just as productive. Like the Clemson Tigers without Trevor Lawrence, Pitt will remain relevant for the foreseeable future. The defense is scary, but the wide receiving department is even scarier. On the flip side, West Virginia has a balanced attack on offense and a defense that can compete with anyone. With this kind of performance against a particularly good program, do not be surprised if the Mountaineers receive AP votes or even climb their way into the top 25 at some point this season.  

The only negative that came out of this game was that it showed the dark side of realignment. We waited too long for it to come back. Moreover, it showed the side that the people in charge do not consider when moving their schools to different conferences like pawns on a chess board.  

This is just one of many historic rivalries that realignment stole from us. Realignment halted or temporarily paused the Keg of Nails rivalry between the University of Cincinnati Bearcats and the University of Louisville Cardinals, two former Big East and Conference USA schools, and the Border War (with their historic war drum trophy) between the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri. 

This is just one wave in a ripple effect that weakens a school’s athletic program. The main reason lies in how this hurts recruiting. Prospective players want to play against a school’s hated rivals every year, not an FCS team paid to be tossed around like a rag doll. Being unable to promote these rivalries may draw recruits away from that school and focus on another university that supports their hot-blooded rivalries. But alas, that is something I, nor anyone but the people in charge can control, and we must pay the price. Until we can do something about it, we just have to focus on the future and the next games on the schedule. 

Pitt, still ranked No. 17, now stays home for a tough contest against the No. 24 University of Tennessee Volunteers, the second game of a two-part series. Meanwhile, West Virginia will return to Morgantown for their home and conference opener against Kansas, and will look to beat the Jayhawks before basketball season begins. 

These two schools will not let this rivalry lie in wait for the next 11 years; rather, they will meet again in each of the next three seasons. West Virginia gets two games at home in 2023 and 2025 while Pitt nabs another home game in 2024, all of which are scheduled for September. After a three-year hiatus, the two schools go to war again for four consecutive seasons from 2029 to 2032. 

Although I want the Backyard Brawl to be played every season for the rest of time, I am beyond glad that this historic conflict made its return into the college football world. I cannot wait to see what the 106th installment has in store.

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