Friedlander: Pitt's Backyard Brawl win a significant victory for the ACC
As Wake Forest cornerback Isaiah Wingfield walked into the postgame interview room following his team’s season-opening win against VMI on Thursday, he noticed a member of the media watching the final seconds of the Pittsburgh-West Virginia game on a computer.
Who won, he asked.
When told that the Panthers had held on to claim a 38-31 victory, Wingfield smiled and said “ACC!”
His reaction underscored just how significant the result was.
Yes, the come-from-behind victory was important to the 70,622 mostly-Pitt fans that jam-packed the stadium formerly known as Heinz Field, the largest crowd for an athletic event in the Steel City’s history. It kept the Panthers in a position to eventually thrust themselves into the College Football Playoff conversation.
And it showed the advocates of super conferences spread from coast-to-coast that regional rivalries still matter and shouldn’t be sold out for an extra few (million) bucks.
Those, however, were mere subplots to the most important storyline to come out of the first Backyard Brawl in 11 years.
At a time in which the ACC desperately needed something, anything, to cast itself in a positive light, its defending champion delivered.
On a Thursday night.
On national television.
On the first evening of the first real weekend of the season, when everyone who is anyone was watching.
You could almost hear the “ACC is an inferior league” narrative losing steam like air escaping from a sputtering balloon as MJ Devonshire sprinted 56 yards toward the end zone with his game-winning pick-6 – or should that be Pitt-6? – with just under 3 minutes remaining.
🚨 PICK SIX ALERT 🚨
Et les Panthers passent devant ! Wow ! 🔥
Interception de CB MJ Devonshire qui remonte le terrain pour un TD défensif.
Pittsburgh 38, West Virginia 31
— TBP College Football (@thebluepennant) September 2, 2022
There’s still a lot of football to be played this weekend, let alone over the course of a long season. But considering that first impressions tend to be lasting impressions, commissioner Jim Phillips couldn’t have asked for a better result.
The next step for the league is to build on this early momentum and continue winning high-profile nonconference games such as Florida State’s matchup with LSU in New Orleans on Sunday.
Pitt will also have another opportunity to do its part against an SEC opponent next week when Tennessee comes to town.
The Panthers beat the Volunteers in Knoxville a year ago in a game that saw Kenny Pickett throw for 285 yards and Jordan Addison score the game’s clinching touchdown. While neither of those stars will be back for the rematch, Thursday’s season opener helped serve notice that the Panthers will be just fine without them.
Southern Cal transfer Kedon Slovis proved to be a reasonable enough facsimile of NFL draft pick to get the job done by throwing for 308 yards and a touchdown in his Pitt debut. He wasn’t spectacular, but he didn’t have to be.
While he was sacked five times and had trouble finding open receivers quick enough to take advantage, he managed to avoid making the kind of major mistake that ended up haunting his Mountaineers counterpart JT Daniels, also a Southern Cal expat who also spent time at Georgia.
And he got plenty of help from his new friends.
Running back Rodney Hammond Jr. scored 2 touchdowns on the ground while the Addison-less receiving corps distinguished itself by piling up 173 yards after the catch.
Three of the longest pass plays of the night – a 64-yarder to Jared Wayne, a 49-yarder to Hammond and a game-tying 24-yard touchdown by Israel Abanikanda with 3:41 left – all came on short throws that turned into big plays.
“It makes my job a lot easier, It makes everyone’s job a lot easier,” the senior quarterback said after the game. “It speaks to the blocking. It speaks to how skilled those receivers are running down the field.”
Slovis did his part, too, by being at his best when his team needed it most.
In doing so, he immediately endeared himself to a fan base that hadn’t celebrated a victory against its neighboring rival since 2008.
Slovis cemented his place in Panthers lore after a decision by West Virginia coach Neal Brown to punt the ball away on 4th-and-1 from midfield rather than relying on a running attack that piled up 190 yards on the ground to produce a potential coup de grace with just over 6 minutes remaining.
Even though Brown succeeded in pinning the Panthers back inside their own 10, Solvis made the Mountaineers pay by driving his team 92 yards on 7 plays for the touchdown that tied the game and set the stage for Devonshire’s decisive defensive play.
It was the kind of drive that can define a quarterback’s career and change the course of an entire season for a championship-minded team.
And a conference that can use every shred of positive karma it can get.