PITTSBURGH -- Finally, blessedly, the Backyard Brawl returned to college football on Thursday night. Fans saw a game to tell their grandkids about, but were also reminded of the emotion, hatred and yes -- profanity-laced chants -- that go hand-in-hand with this lost rivalry.
Eleven years separated the most recent matchup between the schools. Meaning neither the players nor the students in the Panther Pit, filled well before kickoff, had had ever experienced this before.
Yet you would never know it. Pittsburgh rallied for two touchdowns in the final 3:41 to beat the Mountaineers 38-31 to deafening cheers from delirious students and proud Pitt fans. A Pittsburgh sports record 70,622 filled the stadium and yes, most were Pitt fans.
Then, players from both sides began pushing and shouting at each other all the way to the West Virginia locker room tunnel -- right in front of the student section. Pitt players waved goodbye as the Mountaineers trudged off.
West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons got into a shouting match with a Pitt staff member before leaving. Williams punctuated the scene by chanting, "Eat S--- West Virginia" -- switching the team names in the profane West Virginia chant, "Eat s--- Pitt."
Afterward in the victorious locker room, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi spoke to his team about mistakes it made that need to be corrected but he left the most important statement for last: "You're 1-0 in the Backyard Brawl!"
That was thanks largely to M.J. Devonshire, whose 56-yard pick-six with 2:58 remaining put Pitt ahead for good. Devonshire grew up in Pittsburgh, but went to Kentucky out of high school before transferring back to Pitt. He said afterward he grew up with the rivalry, dreaming of playing in a game like this.
To get his players to truly understand the history and hatred that defines this rivalry, Narduzzi brought in Pitt legends to speak to the team. Former coach Dave Wannstedt, who delivered the greatest upset in the history of the rivalry in 2007, spoke to the team on Thursday in what Devonshire called, "one of the greatest speeches I ever heard in my life."
"Coach Wannstedt said, 'Somebody is always going to be legendary. It could be you. When he said that on Thursday I was like, 'Why not me?' I was excited it could be me."
Pretty great Pitt trio right here pic.twitter.com/o7nlbNOQmW— Andrea Adelson (@aadelsonESPN) September 1, 2022
The collective joy to watch these two teams play again was evident well before kickoff.
Starting at 9 a.m. on Thursday, 10 hours before kickoff, a small contingent of West Virginia fans gathered in a hotel parking lot to start their tailgating day, and well, nobody was holding anything back. Eleven long years, and the passion, the hatred, it still burns more for Pitt than any other team on its schedule.
"It's just embedded within us to hate Pitt," said Ben Booth, who dropped his kids off at school in Bridgeport, West Virginia, and then made the drive up I-79 to Pittsburgh. "You hate Pitt your whole life. You hate Pitt after you die. You never stop hating."
Booth says this is true even for young children growing up in West Virginia, who have never experienced a Backyard Brawl for themselves.
"Nothing has changed," Booth said. "Like kids in school, elementary school, middle school. They've never seen the game, and they still hate Pitt in West Virginia. Every time you hear 'Sweet Caroline,' all the kids know what to do."
What exactly is it they do when they hear the song Pitt plays in the fourth quarter?
"Eat s--- Pitt," Booth said.
Walked outside my hotel - already have West Virginia fans tailgating ... pic.twitter.com/cJXbJNUsbS— Andrea Adelson (@aadelsonESPN) September 1, 2022
Hours later in another parking lot, Pitt fans gathered at the same spot they have used to tailgate for more than 20 years. Roslyn Munsch, who graduated from Pitt in 1980, called her daughter, Regina, over to explain how the generational hatred carries on.
"It's been passed on [to] me since I was a young child," Regina Munsch said. "The 2007 Backyard Brawl was like the best moment in my childhood and really shaped who I am today."
"I was born at 8:47 a.m., which is 13 minutes to nine, and the score of that game was 13-9."
She goes on.
"My mom's first lullaby to me was 'Hail to Pitt,' the Pitt fight song. This legacy is something we've got to protect and carry forward."
At the next tailgate, Ben Chase took in the whole scene. He had no affiliation to either team, but had always wanted to go to a Backyard Brawl -- one game on his long list of 60 games he is trying to attend in person this season. He drove from Tucson, Arizona, just to be here, and happened upon this tailgate because he started chatting with the woman in front of him at the port-a-potty line.
He bought his Pitt gear that day.
"It's the Backyard Brawl," he said. "It's the biggest rivalry so I thought, 'Why not start big.'"
He is living in his van during his long weekend college football journey, which will also take him to Charlotte, North Carolina, New Orleans and Atlanta.
"I drove 2,100 miles for this," he said. "No one that you meet today has driven more than me to get here today."
Two hours before kickoff, the Pitt band played for their fans outside the stadium. West Virginia fans walking past screamed, "Eat s--- Pitt." An annoyed Pitt fan turned around and said, "No class!"
It went on from there inside the stadium. Students held up signs that read, "West Virginia was our safety school" or "13-9," the final score of the game in 2007 that cost West Virginia a chance at a national championship.
With each swing in momentum, the crowd grew louder and more energized. And when it all ended, Narduzzi and Pitt players praised their fans for creating an environment they will never forget.
"That was a Backyard Brawl for sure," Narduzzi said. "Let's just start with the fans in that stadium today. That place was electric.
"This is why I came back to Pitt, to do things in this type of game," Devonshire said. "This is the greatest rivalry in college football. I just did something crazy. For years, I can tell my kids about it."