PITTSBURGH — It’s a game where heroes are made, but unfortunately for WVU wide receiver Bryce Ford-Wheaton, he will be remembered for the wrong reasons in Thursday’s renewal of the Backyard Brawl at Acrisure Stadium.
Tied 31-31 with less than four minutes to go, WVU quarterback JT Daniels rifled it to a wide-open Ford-Wheaton, but the ball bounced off his hands and into the waiting arms of Pitt defensive back M.J. Devonshire, who returned it 56 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, a score that would hold for a 38-31 Pitt win.
It wasn’t without more drama at the end. On 4th down deep in Pitt territory, Daniels found Resse Smith over the middle for what was ruled a finger-tip grab at the 1-yard line with 22 seconds left, but it was overturned after review.
After shaking hands with Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi, WVU head coach Neal Brown followed the referees about 60 yards down the field, visibly upset about the final sequence.
In front of 70,622 fans, a Pittsburgh sports record, Ford-Wheaton’s mistake was preceded by a controversial call by Brown.
Leading by seven at 31-24, the Mountaineers faced a 4th and inches from the Pitt 48, but Brown elected to take a delay of game and punt back to the Panthers.
Pitt responded with a seven-play, 92-yard game-tying touchdown drive, capped off by a pass from quarterback Kedon Slovis to running back Israel Abanikanda.
Ford-Wheaton’s mistake shouldn’t overshadow his overall performance — nine catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns.
Daniels finished with 214 yards on 23 of 39 passing, but the offensive star for the Mountaineers was true freshman running back CJ Donaldson, who finished with 125 yards rushing on just seven attempts with a touchdown.
Donaldson is the first WVU player to rush for 100 yards in his college debut since Martell Pettaway did it at Iowa State in November 2016.
It was a back-and-forth game in the first half, with WVU and Pitt each taking advantage of huge momentum swings to go to the locker room tied at 10-10.
In a feeling-out weird start to the game, neither team scored until the Panthers’ second possession, kicking a field goal to take a 3-0 lead. On the drive, however, WVU’s lone returning starter in the secondary, cornerback Charles Woods, left with an apparent left leg injury and did not return, though he did come to the sideline to stretch out.
His replacement, Wesley McCormick, was ejected for targeting in the fourth quarter and will miss the first half next week.
The Mountaineers answered quickly with a 6-play, 75-yard drive, highlighted by a 44-yard run by Donaldson to get to the Pitt 10-yard line. On the next play, Daniels threw a fade to the left corner of the end zone and it was hauled in by Ford-Wheaton for a 10-yard touchdown to give WVU a 7-3 lead.
After drives that ended in punts by both teams, things started to get whacky.
Pitt receiver Bub Means fumbled and it was recovered by WVU linebacker Lee Kpogba at the WVU 32-yard line. However, two plays later, the Mountaineers returned the favor, as WR Kaden Prather fumbled to give Pitt the ball right back deep in WVU territory.
Six plays later, Rodney Hammond drove his way into the end zone to give Pitt a 10-7 lead.
However, WVU went 13 plays and 74 yards to run out the second-half clock, and kicker Casey Legg nailed a 23-yard field goal to tie the game at 10-10.
The Mountaineers will host Kansas for the home-opener at Milan Puskar Stadium at 6 p.m. Sept. 10.