PITTSBURGH - West Virginia never believed Pittsburgh was a better team. Not in August, when Pitt was a near-unanimous pick to win the Big East. Not in October, when the Panthers opened a two-game lead over the Mountaineers.
Certainly not now.
Brandon Hogan's interception and fumble recovery led to touchdowns in the first half, Geno Smith threw two scoring passes to Tavon Austin in the third quarter and West Virginia upset Backyard Brawl rival Pittsburgh for the second straight season, winning 35-10 on Friday.
Pittsburgh (6-5, 4-2 in Big East) had a clear path to the conference title and an automatic BCS bowl bid, only to fumble it away on a chilly, windy but sunny day with four turnovers that repeatedly gave West Virginia's offense excellent field position.
"Yeah, we felt we were the best team," Smith said. "We're always going to feel that way."
So did wide receiver Jock Sanders, who said during preseason camp that West Virginia was better and would prove it when it counted.
The Mountaineers (8-3, 4-2) were seemingly out of BCS contention following successive losses to Syracuse and Connecticut. Now, they can play in a major bowl - likely, the Fiesta - if they beat Rutgers on Dec. 4 and Connecticut (6-4, 3-2) loses to Cincinnati (4-6, 2-3) on Saturday or South Florida (6-4, 3-3), also on Dec. 4.
UConn, which was rooting for Pitt to lose, winds up with the automatic bid if it wins out because it owns the tiebreaker over West Virginia and Pitt.
The Panthers can only blame themselves. They fumbled six times, losing three, and Tino Sunseri threw the interception by Hogan that led to the first of Ryan Clarke's two 2-yard touchdown runs, this one only 1:34 into the game.
"That was big. That changed the momentum of the game - quick," Hogan said. "Our offense got points on the board real fast. It really does something to an (opposing) offense when you turn it over on the first drive of the game."
West Virginia scored quickly in each half, with Smith finding Austin - a converted running back - behind mistake-prone Panthers cornerback Antwaun Reed for a 71-yard scoring pass play with 1:37 gone in the third quarter, making it 21-7. The week before, Reed was called for four pass-interference penalties against South Florida.
"That kind of let the air out of the balloon," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "I don't know if our confidence was shaken a little bit or what."
The Mountaineers scored three touchdowns in the second half, two more than they had after halftime in their first five conference games combined.
Last season, West Virginia put Pitt out of the Top 10 by beating the Panthers 19-16 on a last-second Tyler Bitancurt field goal. This time, the Mountaineers likely put the Panthers out of a major bowl.
The loss likely dooms the Panthers to yet another lower-tier bowl one season after late-season losses to West Virginia and then-unbeaten Cincinnati cost them the Big East title.
"You look at the scoreboard, and you can't believe it," Pitt defensive lineman Chad Alecxih said. "It's disappointing because the last few seasons, we controlled our own destiny and let it slip away."
Because of the turnovers, Pitt - a 3-point favorite - never developed any offensive consistency or rhythm despite holding a 111-7 edge in total yardage late in the first quarter and a 205-75 advantage at halftime.
"We always preach, 'Don't make mistakes, don't turn it over,' " Smith said.
Perhaps he should have passed the message along to Pitt.
Sunseri threw an 8-yard scoring pass to Devin Street with 2 minutes left in the first quarter to tie it at 7. Pitt then forced West Virginia to punt, but Dion Lewis fumbled during a 9-yard reception and Terence Garvin recovered. Lewis ended with 34 yards rushing after having 155 against West Virginia last season.
West Virginia didn't turn that into any points, but Hogan later recovered a Ray Graham fumble and Smith took advantage by finding Noel Devine for 48 yards on a swing pass. Smith found Will Johnson on a 2-yard touchdown pass on the next play, putting the Mountaineers up 14-7 with 4:33 left in the second quarter.
"You make those mistakes against a good team, they always come back to bite you," Sunseri said.
Smith then threw his two scoring passes to Austin in the third quarter, the second a 12-yarder coming with 1:29 left to make it 28-10.
"We didn't feel their defense could handle our speed on the perimeter," Sanders said. "All we had to do was make plays."
Pitt then lost any chance it had of getting back in it when a snap sailed over Sunseri's head on a second-and-6 play from the West Virginia 9. The Mountaineers recovered.