PITTSBURGH - If Ryan Clarke's fumble in overtime against UConn was a play that might have cost West Virginia a shot at a Big East title and Bowl Championship Series berth, then Brandon Hogan's first-quarter interception against Pitt on Friday afternoon might have been the play that recovered those things.
Bear with me.
Sure, after Hogan's interception, there was still 58 minutes and 31 seconds left in the Backyard Brawl. Clearly, it was still anyone's game.
But the Mountaineers had lost the coin flip and Pitt chose to receive. The Panthers began with four straight passes with quarterback Tino Sunseri completing two of them for 14 yards. On third down, Sunseri overthrew his intended target and the ball landed right in Hogan's hands. He raced 53 yards before being pushed out of bounds at the 2 by the Panthers' Greg Gaskins.
Clarke scored on the next play, putting West Virginia up 7-0 on what should have been Pitt's possession. In essence, Hogan's heroics turned that earlier flip into a double-sided coin in favor of the Mountaineers, as they not only had already scored, but were to receive the ball first in the second half of what was supposed to be a fairly evenly matched game.
Advantage to West Virginia right there.
"Colossal," Mountaineers coach Bill Stewart said. "Big."
"It really did make a difference because it gave our offense a short field and they took it in," Hogan said. "That just puts the burden on them. The quarterback, I guess he thought I was playing (Jon) Baldwin, and I just sunk off, and he threw it right to me. I just caught it, tried to make the guys miss, and went right toward the end zone."
It was the first of four turnovers forced by the Mountaineers defense, continually setting up a struggling offense in a good position. That's the only complaint anyone has had during what has been an historic season defensively for West Virginia.
Not enough forced turnovers.
"I wish they could do it every time," Mountaineers quarterback Geno Smith said. "You know it's great for those guys to get the ball back, and it's great for us to have that confidence booster and be up seven points early."
Granted, Pitt wound up tying the game at 7-7 with 2:33 left in the first quarter, but the Mountaineers took a 14-7 lead into the second half after Casey Vance forced Ray Graham to fumble at his own 41 and West Virginia capitalized again, with Smith finding tight end Will Johnson on a 2-yard touchdown pass. Then, they scored on that opening possession of the second half to go up 21-7 on a 71-yard touchdown reception by Tavon Austin, the team's longest play from scrimmage this season and career-long scoring plays for both players.
Pitt, then, was looking at a rather large mountain to climb.
Leaders of the Big East all season, the Panthers didn't make it, and are probably out of contention for that big bowl gme.
"I really thought we'd play better (Friday)," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We didn't."
For the Mountaineers, there's still a chance. Hogan wanted to make sure that was the case early in this one.
Jim Elliott can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org