PITTSBURGH — Playing a bit of Monday morning quarterback is never fair as hindsight is always 20/20, but most will look at Bryce Ford-Wheaton’s drop that led to a pick-6 — the decisive blow — as the play that cost WVU the win in Thursday’s Backyard Brawl against Pitt.
Even head coach Neal Brown did all he could to protect his fifth-year wide receiver after the Mountaineers’ 38-31 loss at Acrisure Stadium.
“What about the kid? He made two touchdowns, too,” Brown said. “We had two drops and one of them was inopportune. It is what it is. The kid also played his ass off. He not only did that, but he made a hell of a play on a punt return covering down.”
But in nearly the same breath during his postgame press conference, Brown was asked about his decision to take a delay of game and punt rather than go for it on 4th and 1 from the Pitt 48.
The scenario was this: The Mountaineers (0-1) took a 31-24 lead in the fourth quarter, and on Pitt’s next offensive possession, WVU’s defense had all the momentum, sacking QB Kedon Slovis twice to force a punt.
On the Mountaineers’ next possession, they reached Pitt territory on four plays, bringing up a 4th and 1 from the Panthers’ 48-yard line with 6:17 remaining in the game.
Go for it and maybe get the knock-out blow, but risk a stop and Pitt takes over with a short field, or punt and pin the Panthers deep in their own territory.
“A little over six minutes to go in the game, it was 4th and about a foot … we’re up seven. So, you can pin them, and we did,” Brown said. “If you go for it there and you don’t get it, then they’ve got a short field and they had three timeouts. So, best answer I can give you, if I had to do it again, I would make the same decision.”
Brown took a delay of game and true freshman Australian punter Oliver Straw was able to force a fair catch at Pitt’s own 8-yard line.
From there, Pitt went 92 yards in just 2 1/2 minutes to tie the game at 31, which then led to Ford-Wheaton’s infamous drop.
Brown’s decision to punt instead of go for it was the part of the game you look back and see where everything started to go wrong.
But if you read deeper into the head coach’s logic as to why he made that choice, and would do it again if the opportunity presented itself, it’s difficult to say he was wrong.
Again, hindsight is 20/20.
“If you look at what [Pitt’s] done traditionally, they’ve been really, really, really good in short-yardage situations,” Brown said. “And so, if you go back and look at it, it was 3/4 of a yard, probably, and so I felt like, if you take the whole scope of the game, their drive before that we got two sacks and we got them into third and forever and we played really well defensively on back-to-back drives, so I felt good about it.”
Last season, with a bulk of the same players on the 2022 unit, Pitt was third nationally in tackles for loss with 113 in 14 games. A disruptive defensive line has become a staple under head coach Pat Narduzzi.
It could be argued, though, that WVU true freshman running back CJ Donaldson was more than capable of picking up a foot, since he was averaging 17 yards per carry at that point in the game, and is the size of a tight end at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds.
A first down picked up ticks off at least another two minutes off the clock while also approaching field-goal range to make it a two-possession game.
Even Narduzzi chimed in after the game.
“I’d have gone for it.”
Brown made his decision, and unfortunately for the Mountaineers, it was the wrong one.
But even though it didn’t work out, it’s always easy to sit back and say what someone should have done when we already know the outcome.