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Backyard Brawl – A Renewed Rivalry at a Crossroads

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Pitt and West Virginia play on Sept. 1

The distance between home fields for the West Virginia Mountaineers and Pitt Panthers is 75 miles when you drive I-79. They plan on renewing this rivalry on September 1 of this year for the 105th edition of the Backyard Brawl. For the first time since 2011 the teams have played, West Virginia comes in with a 3-game winning streak in the rivalry (winner of 14 of the previous 20 contests), with Pitt having the overall series lead at 61-40-3. The rivalry renewal will give us an accurate indication of how the winds of fortune seem to be blowing for both these programs. 

One seems to be on the rise, and the other appears to be on indecision.

Pitt's Climb to the Top 

December 4, 2021, in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Pitt football program seemed to be at a point where it was reintroducing itself to a new generation of college football fans that it was a brand and ready to take that next step as a program. 

The game featured Pitt, a future Biletnikoff Award winner in Jordan Addison, who put up his almost routine 100-yard receiving game. The future first QB was taken in the 2022 NFL Draft in Kenny Pickett neither disappointed. Pickett had a Sportscenter highlight play of the year with his fake slide that turned into a 58-yard touchdown to set the tone for the Panthers as they clinched their first ACC Championship and third conference championship overall (Big East Champions 2004 & 2010).

West Virginia Struggles

WVU entered the bye week 2-4 with two hard-luck road losses to Maryland 30-24 and Oklahoma 16-13, then another heartbreak a week later for homecoming against Texas Tech 23-20. 

The low point came for West Virginia against future Big XII Champions Baylor 45-20. The fanbase in and around Morgantown began wondering if head coach Neal Brown was the solution. The offense was barely top 100 scoring. However, they had a spirited defense that keep them in games.

The Mountaineers had to figure out who they were and what they wanted to be. Coach Neal Brown probably reminded his team what Hall of Fame Head Coach Don Nehlen told them in summer ball, where Coach Nehlen addressed winning, "I talked to them about great teams and average team and the way they think, if you believe in yourself and your teammates, you can make anything happen." 

West Virginia went back to the drawing board.

Nehlen told the team about an encounter with the No. 17 Boston College team and a fledgling unranked Mountaineer squad who was 5-5 entering the contest with BC, "We were down, 20-0, at the half, but the kids came back to beat them primarily because the kids thought they could." 

With WVU down and out at the bye, the team had to soul search who they wanted to be for the second half of their slate. This appears to be a tough time to renew the backyard brawl for WVU with the direction of the two programs. 

Pitt's Rejuvenation

Pat Narduzzi and his Panthers were sitting in rare air for their program. Winning their first ACC Championship, Pitt sat at the top of one of the 5 Power 5 summits. Seats are usually reserved for programs like Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma. Knowing they wouldn't be College Football Playoff, Pitt received a New Year's Six berth to the Peach Bowl against Narduzzi's former Michigan State Spartans. 

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Both programs had rejuvenating seasons, and both were led by Heisman finalists: Pickett for Pitt and Kenneth Walker III; running back for Michigan State had reasons to believe they could capitalize on great seasons with a NY6 bowl win. 

Pitt Internal turmoil

For Pitt, the winds of fortune began to change on December 7th. Mark Whipple resigned from the university. 93.7 The Fan's Andrew Fillipponi tweeted the decision was "family-related," and Head Coach Pat Narduzzi read in a statement about the resignation.

"During his three seasons at Pitt, Mark Whipple was a great asset for our entire football program," Narduzzi said in the statement. "He did a tremendous job transitioning us from a heavy run attack to one of the best passing games in the entire country. His great work with quarterbacks was obviously on full display, given Kenny Pickett's great year. I am very grateful for Mark's time in Pittsburgh, both personally and professionally, and I wish him and his family the very best moving forward."

The Big Moment Turned Out Small.

The second straw for the Pitt program came on December 16 of last year when Kenny Pickett opted out of the Peach Bowl for NFL Draft prep. Michigan State's Kenneth Walker III would follow suit on his opt-out. 

The game with so much promise to be electric. But was marginalized to a matchup between two teams watered down due to opt-outs. 

After a 31-21 loss to Michigan State in the Peach Bowl, one has to wonder if it was here or before that was the genesis of Jordan Addison to begin looking elsewhere to continue his football career. Addison's saga has been outlined in many articles. His decision to transfer to Southern Cal happened in May.

The dreams and visions Narduzzi had in Charlotte for the projection of his program have entirely changed. 

West Virginia finds inner strength

Being 2-4 at the bye, West Virginia found some soul and started on a run to obtain bowl eligibility. 
It began with wins at TCU and in Morgantown against a very talented Iowa State club. The Mountaineers found an offense to compete in a 38-31 track meet. With a pivotal home game on Senior Day to keep their bowl hopes alive, the Mountaineers stunned Texas 31-23 at Memorial Stadium.

The Mountaineers earned a bowl berth against Minnesota in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. They would ultimately fall to the Gophers 18-6. The momentum has continued this off-season on the recruiting front for Neal Brown. As WVU has poached two top-ten recruits from Pennsylvania: Josiah Trotter, son of former Eagles LB Jeremiah Trotter, a linebacker from St. Joseph's Prep in Philadelphia. Rodney Gallagher, a highly talented basketball player, is a wide receiver compared by many prognosticators to be another Jahan Dotson from Laurel Highlands in Uniontown committed to the Mountaineers. Perhaps the character shown by WVU gives them hope for the Backyard Brawl?

Sneak peek for the 2022 Backyard Brawl.

As September 1 looms for both teams, the stakes couldn't be higher. Both teams are looking to build off the highs of last season. Pitt is looking to stop a lot of internal bleeding. They return an entire offensive line and six All-ACC selections on the defensive side of the ball return. The Panthers ranked second nationally in sacks in 2021. However, the bigger news may be that Pitt brought in transfer QB Kedon Slovis from Southern Cal.

The Mountaineers welcome Graham Harrell to coordinate an offense that will be led by a veteran quarterback JT Daniels. With Garrett Greene backing him up, a slip up by Daniels could open the door. Mountaineer fans will likely wonder if 4-star QB Nicco Marchiol will be ready to go. Would Neal Brown be willing to burn his redshirt in order to prepare for the future?

Both programs are at exciting crossroads. There is no greater test than to take on your arch-rival. These programs have quite a lot at stake and plenty to prove. The Backyard Brawl is one of college football's finest rivalries. Seeing it renewed is a treat to college football fans around the country.