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Backyard Brawl upset turned Pitt around

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PITTSBURGH (AP)

Coach Dave Wannstedt didn't need much time following Pittsburgh's improbable upset of then-No. 2 West Virginia two seasons ago to understand what the victory might mean to a program that had been in decline.

It meant everything.

Within days after Pitt's 13-9 road victory prevented West Virginia from playing for the national championship, Pitt received eight commitments from recruits - some of whom had considered both schools.

On the first day of offseason workouts in January, Wannstedt sensed the kind of let's-go-play excitement generally seen only when training camp begins.

"We had as much enthusiasm, from a team standpoint, to get started and to try to build on that for the next year," Wannstedt said. "It was the turning point since I've been here, without a doubt."

With the No. 8 Panthers (9-1, 5-0 in Big East) readying to go back to Morgantown on Friday for the first time since pulling off arguably the biggest upset in school history, it's difficult to overstate what that one single victory has meant to Pitt.

And, too, how it changed the shape of West Virginia football.

Before beating West Virginia, the Panthers had lost seven of nine, 12 of 16 and were 15-19 under Wannstedt, a major downgrade from the 25-13 record during former coach Walt Harris' final three seasons from 2002-04. If they hadn't won, the Panthers would have ended the season 4-8.

West Virginia, by contrast, was 10-1 that season and 32-4 over three seasons under native son Rich Rodriguez.

Suddenly, in one night, Pitt caught up.

Since then, the Panthers have won 19 of 24. They're ranked in the top 10 this late in a season for the first time since 1982. If they can beat No. 5 Cincinnati next week, they will play in the BCS.

West Virginia regrouped from that loss to surprise Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, but only after a disruptive upheaval in which a disillusioned Rodriguez left for Michigan before the bowl game - a move that probably would not have occurred if the Mountaineers had beaten Pitt. The anti-Rodriguez faction in West Virginia was loud, angry and vindictive, and even Gov. Joe Manchin wasn't happy with the messy departure.

Bill Stewart, a longtime assistant who became a head coaching candidate only after orchestrating the Oklahoma win as the interim coach, took his place. Since then, the Mountaineers are 16-7 in two seasons and, unless they can beat Pitt, they might not finish the season nationally ranked.

It was only one game, but what a difference it made to two programs.

"After we got that 'W,' I think that was a big changing point for this university and this football team," Pitt defensive lineman Gus Mustakas said. "After that game, we stepped our game up and took this program to the next level. We had a good season (9-4) last year, and now we're having an even better one."

Even the staunchest Rodriguez hater in West Virginia would find it difficult to argue that the Mountaineers are in the same shape now as they were with a potential national title game awaiting them two years ago this week.

At Pitt, all those promising recruits who had yet to achieve much success seemed to develop overnight after that West Virginia game. The previous two seasons, West Virginia rushed for nearly 900 yards while manhandling Pitt 45-27 (2006) and 45-13 (2005).

At the time, Wannstedt said the speed difference between the two teams was apparent, and Pittsburgh would not win until it began recruiting athletes comparable to West Virginia's. Now, it is.

"That's a win that the guys who are going to be 50, 60 years ago, will still be talking about, beating No. 2 West Virginia," tight end Nate Byham said. "Sure, it was only our fifth win (that season), but it was more than that. We kept West Virginia from winning the national championship or getting a shot to win the national championship. They probably feel like they owe us one."

West Virginia could get back at Pitt by winning Friday, though a loss would affect the Panthers only in the rankings. The Big East title and BCS bid still hinge on the Cincinnati game.

The Panthers insist Cincinnati won't be on their minds this week, if only because the Backyard Brawl demands total attention.

"We've waited all year for this one," Mustakas said. "No matter what happens during the season, if you lose the Backyard Brawl, that's a killer. You don't want to lose this game, no matter what. I know I'm ready. I'm sure they feel like they owe us one, so we've got to be ready to go."

Tagged: Pittsburgh

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