MORGANTOWN - West Virginia's defense came out clawing in the second half of the Backyard Brawl to keep the Mountaineers' hopes alive for a share of the Big East championship.
West Virginia sacked Tino Sunseri 10 times and kept Pittsburgh out of the end zone after halftime, while the Mountaineers came from 10 points down behind a pair of Shawne Alston scoring runs to beat the Panthers 21-20 on Friday night.
West Virginia has the Big East's top offense and three players set several school single-season records in the win, but the Mountaineers' defense stood out in a Backyard Brawl that faces an uncertain future. Pittsburgh is leaving for the ACC and West Virginia is moving to the Big 12. The athletics directors at both schools have indicated they'd like to keep the 116-year-old series alive.
West Virginia’s Najee Goode tackles Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri during the second quarter of the Backyard Brawl on Friday in Morgantown. The Mountaineers won, 21-20.
"Defensively, we just played tremendous," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said.
West Virginia (8-3, 4-2 Big East) can earn a share of the title next week at South Florida. The Mountaineers also hold slim hopes for earning the league's automatic BCS berth but would need some help in a tight league race.
It appeared, for a while, that West Virginia was in jeopardy of losing at home for the third time under Holgorsen - something that hadn't happened since 2001 in Rich Rodriguez's first season.
Instead, Holgorsen became the first West Virginia coach to win his debut in the Backyard Brawl since H.E. Trout in 1903.
Pittsburgh (5-6, 3-3) led 17-7 at halftime. The defense forced three turnovers in the game but the offense was limited to 80 yards in the second half.
Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham, who was a defensive assistant at West Virginia in 2001 and 2002, called the loss "heartbreaking" and he was befuddled by the second-half breakdowns on offense.
"Head-scratching. Don't understand it. Disappointing," Graham said. "It's obviously not what we're trying to execute. We're not executing. That's all I can say about that."
On his birthday, Julian Miller registered four of West Virginia's 10 sacks. Najee Goode had two.
"We faced adversity," West Virginia defensive end Bruce Irvin said. "When those offensive guys were struggling, we just stuck together. We held them and did our job."
Pittsburgh starting running back Zach Brown left the game with an undisclosed injury just before halftime and backup Isaac Bennett left the game midway through the third. Bennett would later return, but Pittsburgh's offense stalled and West Virginia gained momentum.
Alston's 8-yard TD run midway through the third quarter cut West Virginia's deficit to 20-14.
In the fourth quarter, the Mountaineers turned the ball over on downs and Tyler Urban fumbled the ball away on the Mountaineers' next drive.
But a personal foul on Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald gave West Virginia a first down at the Panthers' 28. On fourth-and-7, Geno Smith hit Tavon Austin for nine yards. Alston followed with an 11-yard run and then ran in the go-ahead score with 6:10 left to cap the 83-yard drive and give West Virginia its first lead of the game.
Pittsburgh was forced to punt with 2:30 left and got one last chance from its own 34 after West Virginia went three-and-out. Sunseri ran for a first down on fourth-and-1. But he was called for intentional grounding on the next play and was sacked four times on the final drive before the clock ran out.
Sunseri went 12 of 23 for 137 yards.
"The defense did a great job keeping us in the game," Smith said. "They probably played their best game of the season."
Mistakes on West Virginia's special teams contributed to Pittsburgh's first 17 points.
West Virginia's George Wright was called for a low block on a missed field goal try by Pittsburgh in the first quarter. Brown scored from a yard out five plays later.
Freshman Michael Molinari's 22-yard punt late in the first quarter set up Pittsburgh near midfield, and the Panthers scored in five plays, with Bennett going in from 6 yards out for a 14-0 lead.
Molinari's next punt went 27 yards and he was replaced by Corey Smith, who was stellar the rest of the game. West Virginia punted on six of its eight first-half possessions, went 0-for-6 on third down and was held to 141 total yards before halftime.
A bouncing Pitt punt went off West Virginia's Ishmael Banks and the Panthers recovered at the West Virginia 33, leading to a field goal for a 17-7 halftime lead.
The special teams follies continued in the third quarter. Austin fumbled a punt and Pittsburgh recovered at the Mountaineers 16, leading to another Kevin Harper field goal.
West Virginia replaced two of its offensive linemen early in the third and ran for 44 yards on the go-ahead drive.
"We never say die," Geno Smith said. "We never quit."
Smith completed 22 of 31 passes for 244 yards and set single-season school records for pass completions (291), attempts (448) and yards (3,741), formerly held by Marc Bulger in 1998.
Midway through the second quarter, West Virginia's Stedman Bailey caught a long pass over the middle and appeared to be hemmed in by three defenders, but he reversed course and scored on a 63-yard pass play.
Bailey caught three passes for 80 yards, giving him a school-record 1,117 yards, breaking the old mark of 1,043 set by David Saunders in 1996. Austin's 10 catches for 102 yards gave him 82 receptions, breaking the school record of 77 shared by two others. He now has 1,009 yards on the season, giving the Mountaineers two 1,000-yard receivers for the first time in one season.