Football, Sports, WVU Sports

COLUMN: WVU’s biggest win in years wasn’t pretty, but it was satisfying

It certainly wasn’t pretty — few things during Neal Brown’s tenure at WVU have been — but the Mountaineers picked up their biggest win in years, 17-6, over rival Pitt Saturday night inside Milan Puskar Stadium.

“They call it the Brawl for a reason,” Brown said. “That wasn’t a thing of beauty. They’re not going to talk about the beauty of that game for a long time, but regardless of what it was, it was a win for West Virginia.”

It was the first time the Backyard Brawl has been played in Morgantown since 2011, which was also the last time the Mountaineers defeated their bitter rivals after losing 38-31 when the rivalry was renewed in Pittsburgh last season.

“It’s been something that’s stuck with us for 54 weeks,” Brown said of last year’s loss. “We had a lead in the fourth quarter 54 weeks ago and we did not finish.”

The Mountaineers were validated in many ways with Saturday’s win. The team not only avenged last season’s loss but also picked up the biggest team in Brown’s five years as head.

“I’m so happy for our staff and the families of the staff,” Brown said. “There’s been negativity and I can tune it out, I live in a bubble. Our staff and their families have to deal with that, so they shouldn’t have to deal with that for a week.”

In a game where neither team trusted their quarterback to throw the ball, Pitt quarterback Phil Jurkovec was dreadful completing just eight passes for 81 yards with a trio of interceptions in a dreadful performance. In total, the Panthers were intercepted three times, turned the ball over on downs twice and committed nine penalties.

WVU’s quarterback play wasn’t much better with backup quarterback Nicco Marchiol playing in the place of injured starter Garrett Greene. Greene, the “heart-and-soul” of the Mountaineers according to Brown, went down on the team’s second possession of the game, forcing Marchiol into action.

The redshirt freshman only threw for 60 yards but avoided major mistakes. It was the second time in Marchiol’s young career that he has entered a game as an injury replacement and guided the team to a win, also doing so in last year’s finale at Oklahoma State. 

Marchiol didn’t take time to soak it all in until he was taking a knee at the end of the game.

“That’s when I really was looking around and realizing what had just been accomplished,” he said. “We had not beaten them since 2011, that’s something we’ve talked about all week. That’s something you can visualize, taking the knee at the very end, but to do it out there in real time felt like a dream.”

WVU’s offense ran through bruising running back CJ Donaldson, who broke out for 125 rushing yards in last year’s Brawl. He followed up that performance Saturday by rushing 18 times for 102 yards and a second-half touchdown that put them up 17-6.

He exited the game with an injury in the third quarter, but Marchiol, backup tailback Jaylen Anderson and the defense were able to do just enough to bleed the fourth-quarter clock and secure the win.

“It’s definitely special,” Donaldson said. “It’s so amazing knowing that we’re the team who beat Pitt in 2023 and we haven’t beaten them since 2011.

To the Mountaineers’ credit, the much-maligned WVU defense held Pitt out of the endzone, only allowing a pair of field goals. After Pitt drove for 67 yards on its opening drive, all on the ground, the Mountaineers only allowed 144 yards the rest of the game.

WVU’s defense was the star in the second half, holding Pitt to just 73 yards and only four first downs. Burks, Beanie Bishop and Malachi Ruffin had the Mountaineers’ interceptions. Tyrin Bradley had a sack on fourth-and-20 to flip possession late in the game.

“We’re a tough football team, we’re a mentally tough football team, we’re a physically tough football team,” Brown said. “I thought that showed. It was ugly and we play ugly ball.”

The win not only comes at a crucial time for the football team, which begins Big 12 conference play next week, but also at a time when the academic side of the university is in turmoil with constant talk of cuts and staff reductions.

For a few hours on Saturday night, the 61,106 fans inside Milan Puskar Stadium were able to put aside all their worries and enjoy a Mountaineer victory.

“Our state needed this, our university needed this, our football program needed this,” Brown said. “This is a huge win on a bunch of different levels and that’s not lost on us.”