When the Big 12 football slate kicks off on Thursday night in Pittsburgh it’ll be the 105th tradition of the Backyard Brawl and the first one in 11 years, since the breakup of the old Big East. While Pitt leads the series 61-40-3, West Virginia had the upper hand before the discontinuation of the series winning the last 3 and 7 of the last 10.
It’s a rivalry between two schools that share the Pittsburgh market, historically it’s steelworkers against the coal workers. Pitt is coming off their first ACC title, but with a new QB, and new offensive coordinator. West Virginia is coming into a make-or-break year for Neal Brown and will be turning the reins over to J.T. Daniels at QB.
This rivalry first began back in 1895, between West Virginia, and then Western University of Pennsylvania. In fact, the 1921 edition was the first college football game to ever be broadcast on the radio. It’s also seen many incredible moments from national title hopes dashed to the darkest day of Bobby Bowden’s coaching career. Back in 1970 West Virginia led 35-8 at the half before Pitt stormed back to win 36-35, West Virginia fans would beat on the locker room door, berating the future legendary coach, but at the time first-year head coach. Way back in 1955 the 7-0 Mountaineers would fall to Pitt 26-7 and eliminate West Virginia’s Sugar Bowl hopes.
But there have been plenty of good moments in this rivalry for West Virginia, as in 1975 walk-on kicker Bill McKenzie would hit a game-winner to top Pitt 17-14, of course, Pitt would rebound and win the next 8 meetings, and the 1976 national title. At the tail end of that streak, Pitt was 7-0 and number one in the nation, West Virginia trailed just 16-13 late, and was in field goal range, but Paul Woodside would hit the upright, and Pitt’s perfect season would stay intact. West Virginia finally snapped the streak with a ninety-yard touchdown drive led by Jeff Hostetler to get their first win over Pitt in 8 years, 24-21.
Pitt would become abysmal in the 1990s after a decade-plus of competing for national titles they’d fall to missing bowls for seven straight years. But it would turn around in 1997 when they beat West Virginia 41-38 in 3OT, to finally make it back to a Bowl, and claim their first win over West Virginia since 1992.
In 1991 Pitt and West Virginia would join the Big East together, while their meetings prior were intense, this added the importance of their late season meetings deciding conference titles. With not just a rivalry at stake but many times a conference title, and BCS bowl berth, in fact, in 2007 it was a national title berth on the line. In 1993 West Virginia would beat Pitt en route to a 7-0 Big East season, and an 11-1 overall record. In 2002 they’d again defeat Pitt to keep their share of a Big East title hopes alive but ultimately be undone by Miami. But the next year would defeat them on their way to a share of the Big East despite losing the head-to-head tiebreaker with Miami and being forced to settle for the Gator Bowl. In 2004 Pitt would get their revenge in a 16-13 win, leaving West Virginia, Pitt, and Boston College all tied for the Big East crown. Ultimately it was Pitt emerging on the tiebreaker, and earning the Fiesta Bowl berth.
In 2005 West Virginia would finally claim a solo Big East title-clinching it with a 45-13 win over Pitt on Thanksgiving weekend and would go on to culminate their 11-1 season with a win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. In 2006 West Virginia would again keep their conference title hopes alive by defeating Pitt, but would ultimately fall to South Florida the next week, ending those hopes. But nothing would compare to what was about to happen in 2007.
December 1st, 2007, Morgantown, West Virginia, the final game of the season. West Virginia entered at 10-1 and ranked number 2 in the nation, all that stood in their way of a first national title appearance was the 4-7 Pitt Panthers. It started well for West Virginia, as they took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, but that’d be the last time their offense put up points. Pitt rebounded with a field goal in the 1st, and 1 yard TD run in the second, through a Connor Lee field goal in the fourth the lead was extended to 13-7 for the 28-point underdogs. Pat White would fail to convert on fourth down in Pitt territory, after returning from injury, and Pitt would run the ball out the back of the endzone as time expired for the 13-9 upset. It’s still one of the darkest days in West Virginia football history, as Pat McAfee missed two field goals in the game. Pitt students took to the street in Oakland after, and Pitt QB Pat Bostick would be heard whistling “Take Me Home, Country Roads” after the win. West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez, had also coached his last game for the Mountaineers, leaving for the Michigan job something that likely wouldn’t have happened had a national title been up next.
The series would end positively for West Virginia however in 2011, they’d defeat Pitt in the last Backyard Brawl 21-20. A win over South Florida the next week clinched a berth in the Orange Bowl, and from there they’d go on to beat Clemson 70-33, and begin life in the Big 12.
When these two hated rivals kick off the season on Thursday, it’s sure to be one of the most exciting games of the season. Two schools that fight for the same market, have the same colors, and similar enrolments. Football is officially back, and so is the Backyard Brawl for the first time in 11 long years.