MORGANTOWN — It did not take long for Neal Brown to get the full Backyard Brawl experience. When the storied rivalry between West Virginia and Pitt returned from a 10-year absence last season, Brown saw first-hand what it was all about.
Brown’s high school football coach was being induced into a hall of fame the next day, so he went onto the field at Acrisure Stadium prior to the game to film a congratulatory video for him. Brown, and his young son Dax, were met with a traditional Backyard Brawl greeting from the Pitt students who had flooded into the stadium early.
“Here I come out of the tunnel with Dax and he learned some new words and he wanted to know why they were giving us the number-one signal with the middle finger,” Brown recalled on Monday. “From that point on, I got a good understanding of what it’s about.”
That was the experience for a lot of the Mountaineer players and coaches last year. They transitioned from hearing about the Backyard Brawl and its history to actually being a part of it.
“Going in there was kind of surreal. It was a different kind of atmosphere, a different kind of energy,” offensive lineman Brandon Yates said. “You feel like you’re a part of the history. Every guy who has been in that atmosphere or been in that situation understands the feeling of the Backyard Brawl. It’s certainly different.”
This year, the Backyard Brawl returns to Morgantown on Saturday (7:30 p.m., ABC) for the first time since 2011.
“Obviously, this is the biggest rivalry we have in our program and we understand that in this building and from a fan-base standpoint,” Brown said. “This is the first Saturday night true night game since 2016 here. I know our fans are happy about that; it’s a great opportunity for our guys.”
Last year’s game was the first true rivalry game other than Virginia Tech that a lot of WVU’s players were able to take part in.
“You can kind of tell it’s a rivalry, it’s a real rivalry,” Yates said. “It’s not one of those where you say it’s a rivalry because it’s a regional thing — this is genuine that we’re rivals with each other and we really want to beat each other and compete.”
Even players who didn’t appear in last year’s game, like in-state receiver Hudson Clement, were in awe of the atmosphere.
“Growing up (in West Virginia), you see that rivalry all the time,” he said. “You see the atmosphere and you think about playing in it. You never actually think you’ll be playing in it, but going into this, it’s great.”
Even out-of-state players like quarterback Garrett Greene, a native of Florida, were able to get a full understanding of what the Backyard Brawl is all about.
“I’m not from here, but I like to say I grew up here,” Greene said. “I was raised in Tallahassee but I really grew up in West Virginia and became a man here. We don’t like them and they don’t like us, so we’re fired up for it.”
Last year’s game set a Pittsburgh city record for attendance at a sporting event with 70,622 fans packed into Acisure Stadium. A similar crowd for this year’s game in Morgantown would set a WVU football attendance record. The current high-water mark is 70,222, set in 1993 for a game against Miami.
“I hope it’s electric,” Brown said of Saturday’s atmosphere. “I know this is (a game) that has been circled for a long time, it has been sold out for a long time, a lot of people coming into town for this.”
After experiencing the Backyard Brawl in his own stadium last season, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said he is just as excited to coach the game in hostile territory.
“I like coaching, period,” Narduzzi said. “I like playing wherever we get to play. I like going to different places. I think that’s all part of the pageantry of college football. … We’ll learn more (about the rivalry) going down there. I think the kids will really learn what the rivalry is on the road and how hostile it is.”
Both coaches said they’re in favor of playing the Backyard Brawl as an annual non-conference game alternating between Acrisure Stadium and Mountaineer Field.
“I think it’s fun, I think rivalries make college football,” Brown said. “A lot of the rivalries have kind of gone to the wayside, which is disappointing. … I think it’s a game that our fans and their fans like to see. This is heated, we understand that and our players look forward to getting back into that.”
Aside from being a rivalry game, it’s also a crucial contest early in the season for both sides. A win would give the Mountaineers some much-needed optimism and confidence heading into Big 12 play, while Pitt is looking to bounce back following an embarrassing home loss to Cincinnati last week.
“It’s a football game that means a lot to a lot of people,” Narduzzi said. “I think our Pitt fans are passionate. West Virginia fans are passionate. It comes down to passion. People want to see you play well in those games.”