The Backyard Brawl is ‘where the beast lives’ for Pitt, WVU

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Pat Bostick‘s official title at the University of Pittsburgh is “Senior Associate Athletic Director of Development, Major Gifts.”

There’s an unofficial title that pops up fairly regularly for the quarterback who helped the Panthers pull off one of college football’s greatest upsets of the 21st century.

“I joke sometimes people think when they see my face they think of a score before they think of my name,” Bostick said with a laugh.

That’s because across a significant stretch of the Appalachians and western Pennsylvania foothills, “13-9” lives on forever.

Pitt’s stunner over West Virginia in 2007 deflated a stadium, derailed a season, and redefined a rivalry, one that will be renewed for the first time in more than 10 years on when the 17th-ranked Panthers host the Mountaineers in the return of “The Backyard Brawl.”

Well over a decade removed from that cold December night in Morgantown, West Virginia, the details remain fresh in Bostick’s mind.

The way Pitt’s bus swayed as West Virginia fans pushed against it as it made its way to Milan-Puskar Stadium. The sound of something heavy – a battery maybe, Bostick thinks – smacking against the bus’s frame over and over again. The way running back LeSean McCoy stood up and challenged his teammates to make the impossible possible.

“It was supposed to be a coronation (for West Virginia),” Bostick said. “That team was really, really good.”

It was. Just not on Dec. 1, 2007. Bostick remembers the feeling of disbelief as the Panthers poured onto the field with the Mountaineers’ hopes of crashing the BCS title game gone, soon to be followed by head coach Rich Rodriguez, who bolted for Michigan shortly thereafter.

The renewal of the series after both teams left the Big East for more lucrative pastures – Pitt to the Atlantic Coast Conference, West Virginia to the Big 12 – has already produced a rare home sellout for the Panthers. It also required Bostick and others on both sides to spend the run-up serving as history professors of sorts. After all, the players who will participate in the 105th edition of the Brawl were in elementary school the last time Pitt and West Virginia shared the same field, a 21-20 victory by the Mountaineers in 2011.

“I absolutely do feel a responsibility to share,” Bostick said. “It’s the same responsibility that the seniors had when I was a freshman. I’m also going to encourage them to enjoy it.”

Maybe it’s because, as former Pitt running back LeSean McCoy put it, “nothing else matches up” to the Brawl.

“The rivalry is something special,” said McCoy, who ran for 148 yards during the 2007 win and later embarked on a 12-year NFL career.

A feeling embraced by all involved. For years former WVU linebacker Gary Stills tried to impart the significance of the Brawl to his son Dante, who admittedly didn’t particularly grasp it while growing up.

He does now. Maybe because the Mountaineers’ defensive lineman will find himself thrust into it for the first time.

“I wasn’t, like, locked in, because I’m a kid. I’m just playing around,” Dante Stills said. “I remember just people talking about it growing up as a kid: `We don’t like Pitt, we don’t like Pitt.’ But I’m a kid, so I’m like, `Why don’t you like Pitt?’ But now, I obviously know.”

At least he thinks he knows. His father isn’t so sure his son will understand the Brawl until he experiences it first-hand.

“That Backyard Brawl, that’s where the beast lives,” Gary Stills said. “I’m going to be excited to watch my son play with my number and with the bloodline still going.”

Pitt has been relying on more than folklore to get emotionally ready. Quarterback Kedon Slovis, who will get the start after transferring from USC over the winter, hinted the Panthers have been familiarizing themselves with “Country Roads,” the iconic John Denver song that doubles as West Virginia’s unofficial state anthem.

The anthem has made its way onto a playlist in Pitt’s weight room, a psychological ploy designed to offer a little extra motivation at the end of a workout.

This isn’t the first time during Pat Narduzzi‘s now eight-year tenure that the Panthers have revived a dormant series. Pitt and Penn State played annually from 2016-19. Nearly 70,000 crammed into what was then known as Heinz Field for the 2016 meeting, the biggest crowd to attend a Pittsburgh sporting event of any kind in the city’s history.

Narduzzi declined to offer specifics on what he’s learned about how to prepare for what awaits in front of a packed stadium and a national television audience against essentially a blood rival. Yet he’s well aware of the stakes.

“There’s a lot of hatred on their end – but there’s got to be a lot of hate on our end,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to in rivalry games.”

Even if the hate doesn’t come from history but from happenstance. Pitt linebacker SirVocea Dennis grew up in central New York, far outside the specter of the Brawl and doesn’t really know any of the current Mountaineers. That won’t matter once the ball is kicked off.

“Once we (put on) our jerseys and that Pitt script on our helmets,” Dennis said, “whoever they say we don’t like, we don’t like.”

Pac-12 looking stronger at top after early-season losses

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
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When Oregon got throttled by top-ranked Georgia and Utah lost at Florida, it appeared as though the Pac-12 was headed toward another College Football Playoff miss.

One week into the season and two of the conference’s top teams had already failed big early tests.

Flash forward three weeks and it seems the Pac-12 might be in good shape after all.

The Ducks and Utes bounced back with big wins and the top of the conference looks strong, with four teams in the top 15 for the first time since 2016.

It’s still early, but the Pac-12 is putting itself in position to get a team through to the CFP for the first time since Washington in 2016-17.

A look at how the top of the Pac-12 is stacking up headed into the first weekend of October:

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

The No. 6 Trojans (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) seem to have quickly returned to glory in their first season under Lincoln Riley. The former Oklahoma coach brought quarterback Caleb Williams with him to Southern California and they have thrived through the first four games.

Williams has thrown for 1,054 yards and nine touchdowns, adding 100 yards and two more scores rushing. USC’s defense has been opportunistic, leading the nation with 11 interceptions while tied for the lead with 14 takeaways.

The Trojans survived a scare against scrappy Oregon State over the weekend to start 4-0 for the first time since 2012. USC has to play at Utah on Oct. 15, but avoids Washington and Oregon this season.

UTAH

The 12th-ranked Utes opened the season with a tough road loss at The Swamp in Florida, but have won three straight lopsided games.

Outside of a costly interception late against the Gators, quarterback Cam Rising has been sharp, throwing for 954 yards and 10 TDs. Utah (3-1, 1-0) has a physical defense and is third in the FBS, allowing 132.8 yards passing per game.

The Utes also have a veteran team that won the Pac-12 championship last season. The bad news: tight end Brant Kuithe, their leading receiver, is out for the season with a knee injury.

Utah plays Oregon State this weekend and has tough games against USC and Oregon still on the schedule.

OREGON

The Ducks’ playoff chances took an immediate hit with a 49-3 loss to reigning national champion Georgia in their opener.

No. 13 Oregon (3-1, 1-0) bounced back with a decisive win over a good BYU team and outlasted previously undefeated Washington State 44-41 last week.

The Ducks were no match for the Bulldogs in any aspect – few teams are – but have averaged 51.6 points the past three games. Oregon’s biggest weakness is its pass defense. The Ducks are allowing 72.5% of passes to be completed, third worst in the country.

Oregon’s biggest tests left in the season will come in back to back games against Washington and Utah.

WASHINGTON

The Huskies have made a quick turnaround in their first season under coach Kalen DeBoer.

Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has been superb now that he’s healthy, throwing for an FBS-best 1,388 yards and 12 TDs with one interception. No. 15 Washington (4-0, 1-0) picked up a solid home win against Michigan State and has 15 sacks this season, including eight against Stanford last week.

The Huskies play their first road game at undefeated UCLA on Saturday and have to face Oregon on Nov. 12.

UCLA

After winning at Colorado for the first time since 2014 last Saturday, the Bruins (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) have their longest winning streak since winning the first eight games in 2005.

UCLA had a hard time getting past South Alabama and opened its Pac-12 schedule with a win against the struggling Buffaloes.

The Bruins will find out how good they are over the next three weeks, a brutal stretch that includes home games against Washington and Utah before heading to Eugene to play the Ducks on Oct. 22.

CFP expansion talks head toward October after 7-hour meeting

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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ROSEMONT, Ill. — The conference commissioners who manage the College Football Playoff met for almost seven hours Tuesday to work on expanding the postseason system from four to 12 teams as soon as the 2024 season.

There is still much work to be done.

“We will not wrap up this week,” CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock said.

The CFP management committee, comprised of 10 conference commissioners and Notre Dame’s athletic director, is scheduled to convene again at the Big Ten offices for a few hours Wednesday morning. They are set to meet again in person in Dallas on Oct. 20.

“That’ll be important,” Hancock said.

Expansion talks were revived by the university presidents and chancellors who oversee the College Football Playoff last month.

By adopting a 12-team plan that had been on the table since the spring of 2021, the presidents pushed the commissioners to try to implement a new format before the end of the CFP’s current contract with ESPN. That deal ends after the 2025 season.

Expanding from four to 12 in 2024 and ’25 will require rescheduling semifinals and championship games that already have dates and sites set, plus adding four new first-round games in mid-December to be played on campus sites.

Squeezing it all into about a month and working around the NFL for television will be challenging.

Hancock said the idea of moving up the start of the college football season to the week before Labor Day to create more room at the end for the playoff has been discussed, but more for beyond the 2025 season.

“I think most people view that as a future item. As long-term item and not an immediacy item,” Hancock said. “Remember, there’s so many details.”

Hancock said CFP officials have spoken to bowl partners and hosts cities that are set to hold semifinals and championship games after the 2024 and ’25 seasons, but they have not been presented definitive new dates.

Atlanta already has been chosen as the host city for the championship game to be played following the 2024 season, on Jan. 6, 2025. The game would have to be pushed back about two weeks if the playoff grows from four teams to 12.

“(Atlanta organizers) have some work to do because of other businesses in the community,” Hancock said. “Other meeting-type business, hotel business and Convention Center business there. They’ve been great to work with.”