Devonshire pick-six lifts Pitt over Mountaineers in tug-of-war, win 38-31

By Frankie Richetti, Senior Staff Writer

After an 11 year hiatus, the Backyard Brawl returned on Thursday night in front of 70,622 people at Acrisure Stadium — the largest crowd in Pittsburgh sports history. Pitt fans didn’t go home disappointed after pulling off a late game 38-31 win behind junior cornerback MJ Devonshire’s pick six. 

While many expected Pitt to win comfortably, the game instead embodied what the rivalry was all about. It was an ugly slugfest throughout, with each team having to earn every single point they put on the board. 

The home crowd got to the West Virginia offense early and often, forcing two botched snaps from Mountaineer senior quarterback JT Daniels on their opening drive. After a Panthers three-and-out, West Virginia took over in favorable field position but punted after a false start penalty on fourth down. 

With the Panthers backed up against their own end zone, senior quarterback Kedon Slovis showed poise as he connected with senior wide receiver Jared Wayne on a 20-yard pass on third down, kickstarting the Panther drive. Sophomore kicker Ben Sauls got the Panthers on the board for their first points of the season later on the drive, connecting from 42 yards out.

It didn’t take long for the Mountaineers to strike back. First-year running back CJ Donaldson took the first carry of his college career for 46-yards, setting up a 10-yard touchdown pass from Daniels to junior wideout Bryce Ford-Wheaton, giving West Virginia a 7-3 lead. 

Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi voiced his displeasure with his team’s run defense postgame. 

“I’m not happy about our run defense,” Narduzzi said. “We’ll get it cleaned up… I’m in charge of that.”

Pitt remained unphased as they didn’t allow the Mountaineer score to alter their gameplan. But the gameplan simply wasn’t working. Pitt rotated in a plethora of different running backs to the fold, but none got the ground game going. 

After a 53-yard punt by first-year punter Sam Vander Haar put the Mountaineers at their own one yard line, Pitt put itself in good position to stymie the Mountaineer defense. But senior defensive end Haba Baldonado fell victim to a taunting penalty, giving West Virginia new life. Baldonado’s teammates bailed him out, though, and picked up a stop. 

At this point in the game, both sides knew what the rivalry was all about. Despite the majority of players not having any connection to the rivalry, they brought a different level of physicality and intensity. Players were jawing after plays and pushing one another after the whistle as well.

“Yeah, I understand it now,” Rodney Hammond, a sophomore running back, said of the rivalry. “Now I really see what the Backyard Brawl is like.”

Hammond took the first carry of the next drive for 13 yards. Before he got the chance to keep the drive alive, Pitt sophomore receiver Bub Means put the ball on the ground and the Mountaineers took over.

Just two plays later, the Mountaineers suffered the same fate after a fumble from sophomore wide receiver Kaden Prather. Unlike West Virginia, Pitt took advantage of the turnover. A 15-yard completion from Slovis to Pitt sophomore wide receiver Konata Mumpfield gave the Panthers their first red zone opportunity of the night. 

Then it was right back to Hammond. 

The sophomore carried the ball for 12 yards putting the Panthers inside the ten, and later capitalized with his first touchdown of the season, putting Pitt back in the lead by a score of 10-7. 

The crowd became deafening and the defense fed off of it on the ensuing drive, as the Panthers leveled Daniels on third down but his wobbling pass fell right into Ford-Wheaton’s hands between four Pitt defenders, good for a 15-yard first down. 

That was the momentum shifter, with the Mountaineers eventually finding themselves in the red zone once again but the Panthers didn’t break, holding the Mountaineers to a field goal. The two teams went into the half knotted at 10.

Slovis entered the locker room attempting just eight passes — completing six for 84 yards. Daniels, his former teammate turned opponent, completed 14 of 21 passes for 106 yards and a touchdown. 

After another Pitt three and out to start the second half, Donaldson again made his presence known. The first-year blocked Vander Haar’s punt deep in Pitt territory and then bulldozed his way in for a touchdown on the ensuing play, giving the Mountaineers a 17-10 lead. 

The Panthers looked to take the top off the next drive as Slovis looked deep for Mumpfield, but it went off of his hands and fell to the ground meeting a collective groan from the Panthers faithful. The drive once again fell short, to the dismay of the Pitt fans in the stands.

Pitt’s defensive line finally began to wake up as Pitt senior defensive end John Morgan stripped Daniels, but the Mountaineers managed to fall on it at their own one yard-line. Pitt forced a punt but it seemed like all the bounces were falling the way of West Virginia.

That was until Slovis found Wayne for a 64 yard catch and run, setting up Pitt junior running back Daniel Carter to go over the top for a touchdown from one yard out. The score once again tied the score, this time at 17 a piece. 

The Panthers forced a three and out and had the chance to take their first lead since late in the second quarter. They did just that. Slovis found Hammond in the flat, who was uncorked by a monstrous block by Means to go 49 yards, setting up his 11-yard rushing touchdown the very next play – his second touchdown of the night — putting the Panthers up 24-17. 

Pitt should have gotten off the field on the following West Virginia drive, but an illegal substitution penalty gave the Mountaineers another opportunity. They didn’t squander it. Donaldson again took over in another crucial moment, rushing for 20 yards with a facemask penalty tacked on to the end of the run. 

Sweet Caroline played at the end of the quarter but it didn’t phase the Mountaineers as Daniels connected with Ford-Wheaton on a 16-yard touchdown to open the fourth quarter — good for the duo’s second touchdown connection of the game — and the game was once again tied, this time at 24. 

After another futile drive from the Panthers, Donaldson didn’t waste any time and took the first carry of the drive for 39 yards. West Virginia sophomore running back Tony Mathis scampered for 23 yards all the way down to the Pitt one yard line, setting up a Daniels quarterback sneak for a score and the Panthers once again found themselves behind a score. 

The Mountaineers looked to put the final nail in the coffin after sacking Slovis twice, forcing a Panthers punt. 

Slovis said despite not being in a rhythm offensively, the Panthers remained strong.

“The guys stayed strong, there were times where we weren’t in a rhythm… when that happens it can be frustrating but again, we got a great group of guys,” Slovis said. 

Pitt senior linebacker SirVocea Dennis urged his team that even though it was looking bleak for the Panthers, they would find a way. 

“I had to make sure my guys knew… ‘listen, we’re gonna pull out this game, no matter what,’” Dennis said. 

The Mountaineers seemed to capitalize after every Panther mishap but couldn’t this time around, giving Pitt one more chance to tie the game. 

They had to drive 92 yards to do it. 

A targeting penalty gave the Panthers 15 yards and kickstarted a methodical drive by Slovis — who went 5 for 5 — with the last completion good for a 24-yard touchdown pass to Pitt junior running back Izzy Abanikanda, who replaced Hammond. The game was now tied once more.

West Virginia took over with 3:41 remaining with a chance to take the lead and it looked like Daniels had a completion but it bounced off of his intended receivers hands and Devonshire intercepted the ball and returned it 56 yards for a touchdown. The Mountaineers slipped up and Pitt capitalized to take a 38-31 lead. 

Devonshire said he pulled inspiration from Pitt great and fellow Aliquippa alum Darrelle Revis to bring his Backyard Brawl moment to life.

“I watched Darrelle’s punt return, and I was like, man, how crazy would it be… if I could run down the same sideline,” Devonshire said. 

Pitt once again committed another 15-yard penalty, giving the Mountaineers the ball at midfield with just 1:28 remaining. But Dennis, the leader of the Panthers defense, came through when the Panthers needed it most, sacking Daniels on first down. Daniels went down again on third down, setting up a fourth down and 16 with the game on the line. 

The Mountaineers almost pulled off an improbable first down but the ball hit the ground, giving possession to the Panthers effectively ending the game. 

How fitting that this one came down to a matter of inches.