Pitt rallies late to secure 38-31 victory against West Virginia

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Dave Wannstedt’s words carried across the room and into MJ Devonshire’s head long before Pitt put a lock on what became an improbable Backyard Brawl victory, 38-31, against West Virginia.

“He said it: `Somebody is always going to be legendary and it could be you,’ ” Devonshire said of the former Pitt coach who spoke to the team before the game. “When he said that, it was like, `Why not me?’

“(Wannstedt and former Pitt running back LeSean McCoy days earlier) coming back and giving (some) of the best speeches I ever heard, I’ve been ready for a couple days.”

Devonshire is the cornerback from Aliquippa who transferred from Kentucky to Pitt last year hoping for moments like what happened in the final three minutes Thursday night at Acrisure Stadium.

Score tied, Devonshire approached West Virginia wide receiver Bryce Ford-Wheaton as he prepared to catch a pass from quarterback JT Daniels on the WVU sideline.

“I came up expecting to make a tackle. I said, `Let’s strip him,’ ” Devonshire said, remembering the moment that would make him a Backyard Brawl legend seconds later. “He dropped it and I was, `Oooh, I get to catch it.’

“The play before that he caught a tipped pass. He jumped up and high-pointed it. I thought it was mine. I didn’t get there. I said, `I’m going to get one. It’s coming. Be patient.’

“It was like slow motion. It fell into my hands. I made him miss and the rest is history.”

Devonshire’s 56-yard interception return into the end zone – he weaved through all 11 WVU players like he was navigating a maze — was Pitt’s second touchdown in less than a minute.

It also turned out to be the game’s sixth lead change and helped the Panthers erase a 31-24 Mountaineers lead that looked insurmountable at one point.

Moments earlier, Pitt running back Izzy Abanikanda put a 24-yard catch-and-run into Brawl lore to tie the score, setting the stage for a Pitt defense that, realistically, struggled through much of the night.

Pat Narduzzi has witnessed plenty of defensive standouts in his long coaching career. But Devonshire’s Pick 6 was different.

“All I say is, `Wow.’ When he caught that thing, he was going,” the coach said. “He’s had some great punt returns and he’s one of our punt returners as well. that makes you want to put him on punt return because he took that one; he was running 4.3 (speed) for sure. It was impressive.”

Not everything about Pitt’s 2022 opener was impressive, however. A crowd of 70,622 — an all-time record for a Pittsburgh sporting event of any variety — watched the Pitt defense crumble before Devonshire authored the decisive points.

The defense surrendered 190 yards on the ground, striking at everything that an old-school coach such as Narduzzi holds dear.

“I’m hot. I’m not happy,” the coach said, signaling an intense eight-day stretch for players and coaches before the next game Sept. 10 against Tennessee.

“We had some new guys on the defense who need to understand what’s going on, what’s happening and how other teams try to attack our defense,” senior linebacker SirVocea Dennis said.

Pitt recorded two of its three sacks after taking its final seven-point advantage, but Daniels completed 23 of 40 passes for 214 yards and two touchdowns to Ford-Wheaton.

On the other side of the football, Pitt’s running game didn’t get in gear until Rodney Hammond Jr. replaced Abanikanda, the starter, and ended up with 74 yards and two touchdowns. The last of which was an 11-yard run in which Hammond carried players from both teams into the end zone.

“It kind of felt like there were a lot of people on my back,” Hammond said. “I didn’t care. I was going to get it either way.”

Still, the run game is another area Narduzzi will spend considerable time trying to fix.

“I was a little disappointed with our run game, but it’s openers,” he said. “Sometimes, you don’t know what (defensive) fronts you’re going to get. We have to do a better job.”

Pitt quarterback Kedon Slovis survived five sacks to outduel Daniels, his former USC teammate. In his first game for Pitt, Slovis completed 16 of 24 passes for 308 yards and a touchdown. Much credit goes to pass catchers Jared Wayne, Hammond and Abanikanda, who totaled eight receptions for 168 yards, 124 of them after the catch.

“I thought he was a little late with the ball at times,” Narduzzi said. “We’ll look at that. Why? What? Don’t like the sacks at all.”

But in the end, the coach complimented his new quarterback. “He made the plays when he needed to,” Narduzzi said.

In the end, Pitt’s players learned the hard way what a rivalry game means to both sides.

Defensive end John Morgan, who recorded a sack while replacing injured starter Deslin Alexandre, said he learned the significance of the Backyard Brawl months ago from strength coach Michael Stacchiotti.

“Going back to winter workouts,” Morgan said, “coach Stacch came into the weight room one time and told us, `You’re not lifting just for lifting. You’re lifting for Sept. 1. Those guys are coming down from their hometown. They don’t like you guys.’

“It was internal hate.”

Hate and words from a former coach turned out to be the fuel that Pitt needed.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at jdipaola@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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