MORGANTOWN, W.Va. —
Another second-half collapse left Pittsburgh's Big East title hopes dashed.
The Panthers squandered a 10-point halftime lead, were limited to 80 yards of offense in the second half and lost to West Virginia 21-20 on Friday night.
It looked all too familiar in a season of disappointment for the Panthers (5-6, 3-3 Big East), who also couldn't hold late leads against Iowa, Notre Dame and Cincinnati.
"Head-scratching. Don't understand it. Disappointing," Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham said. "It's obviously not what we're trying to execute. We're not executing. That's all I can say about that."
Pittsburgh's defense forced three turnovers, but it was West Virginia's defense that stood out. The Mountaineers sacked Tino Sunseri 10 times.
Julian Miller registered four of West Virginia's 10 sacks. Najee Goode had two.
"I'm sick to my stomach we lost that game, because our players did us everything they could," Graham said. "We just didn't get it done."
Graham was a defensive assistant at West Virginia in 2001 and 2002. This was his first as a head coach in the Backyard Brawl, which faces an uncertain future. Pittsburgh is leaving for the Atlantic Coast Conference and West Virginia is moving to the Big 12. The athletic directors at both schools have indicated they'd like to keep the 116-year-old series alive.
West Virginia (8-3, 4-2) 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 coach Dana 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.
"Defensively, we just played tremendous," Holgorsen said.
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.
"It wasn't just the end of the game, it was all night long. We had missed opportunities all over the field," Graham said. "We didn't execute for whatever reason."
Shawne 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.
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.