The Highs and Lows to the 105th Backyard Brawl

You haven’t been paying attention to what this rivalry means to both fans and players if you believed the inaugural Backyard Brawl after an 11-year hiatus wouldn’t be an immediate classic. The audience at the second Backyard Brawl Classic in Pittsburgh, which drew a crowd of 72,000 people, undoubtedly got their money’s worth.

Overall, I believe that West Virginia was a different squad this time around, with numerous signs of growth on both ends of the field. JT Daniels, the WVU quarterback, was among the things that struck me as impressive. This guy lives up to the hype, and based on what I observed last night, he is a significant improvement over the experimental Jarret Doege. Daniels completed 23 of 39 throws for 214 yards and 2 touchdowns (two passing, one rushing). A wonderfully placed ball to Bryce Ford-Wheaton that was intercepted by him once by a Pitt defender. JT displayed poise and composure with each toss. He didn’t seem to be bothered by anything, which is something we haven’t seen since Geno Smith.

Although the offense offers some useful lessons, the veteran offensive line fell short of expectations. The O-Line must improve its pass protection skills if JT Daniels wants to remain healthy. Another plus for West Virginia’s attack was the play calling of new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, who seemed to have a good handle on things and made wise decisions when they mattered.

The game last night depended on West Virginia rookie running back CJ Donaldson’s switch to running back, his two big gains, and a blocked punt. The explosive offensive of Graham Harrell now has even another tool. With 125 yards and a touchdown on seven carries, this guy appears to be just as spectacular as promised. There is definitely a chance that Donaldson will become the next Mountaineer great, in my opinion. It’s a lot to ask of a true freshman, but he managed it against a defensive line that was actually quite outstanding and might very well be the best one we face all year. To begin the non-conference schedule, I’m eager to see what he produces, but for the time being, everyone should be beast alert with Donaldson. He has my complete respect, and it’s clear that the coaching staff feels the same way. 

On the offensive side of the ball, West Virginia needs to improve, particularly on the offensive line and the receiving corps. The two main issues are pass protection and catching the football  We observed a really athletic and vastly improved overall defense. The WVU defensive line, led by Dante Stills, dominated Kedon Slovis the whole game. The big men up front wreaked havoc on the Pitt offense, totaling 5 sacks against a seasoned Pitt defensive line, including two in one possession in the fourth quarter.

The 4th & inches play was what made last night’s battle turn. With about 6:00 left in the game, WVU coach Neal Brown had to choose whether to go for it on 4th & inches with the chance to go up two touchdowns or punt and try to bury Pitt deep in their own territory. Brown decided on a punt. Pitt was gifted the ball on their own eight-yard line after a skillfully performed punt. Even though Neal may have won a battle, the war was subsequently lost. At that point in the game, WVU had all of the momentum. Our running game dominated the second half. It is difficult to think that CJ Donaldson was unable to lift the chains by the minimum few inches on his own accord because of his incredible strength.

If the idea of putting your veteran quarterback in such a crucial situation seems risky, just line him up under center and fall forward. Earlier in the game, JT Daniels successfully converted a similar scenario. Neal had the opportunity to dispel the notion that he manages his games too conservatively. Neal, though, managed to pull defeat from the grasp of triumph. In the press conference following the game, he reiterated his choice, saying he would stick with it.  Brown runs everything by analytics. He doesn’t have a “gut” instinct. He just runs the numbers. He doesn’t coach. Big difference!

Last night, Neal came close to a win that might have changed the course of the program. Unfortunately, he discovered a heartbreaking new way to lose. The Mountaineers could suffer a great deal as a result of this choice. Does Neal lose his teammates or supporters as a result of this? Is it possible for him to unite the team for the game against an improved Kansas team the following week, or are we doomed to lose the Pitt game for the second week in a row?

It’s time that Neal Brown takes some responsibility!