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2007 Backyard Brawl loss to Pitt leaves bitter taste for WVU

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Two years ago, West Virginia defensive lineman Chris Neild was all set to have the best birthday present: a trip to the national title game in New Orleans.

It ended up being the worst day of his life.

A Pitt team already out of bowl contention surprised Neild and the Mountaineers, beating them, 13-9, stunning the capacity crowd and ruining WVU's chances at its first national championship.

Neild now refers to the loss as "the game."

"I don't even want to talk about it. It was that bad," the Mountaineers' starting nose tackle said. "That feeling after the game will stick with me for the rest of my life."

Since that loss, the Mountaineers lost their best coach — Rich Rodriguez — and arguably the two best players in program history in Pat White and Steve Slaton. The program also seemed to lose some of its swagger.

Despite rebounding to win the 2008 Fiesta Bowl over a heavily favored Oklahoma in their next game, the Mountaineers under second-year head coach Bill Stewart have been knocked out of Big East title contention early the last two seasons.

Prior to the loss to the Panthers, the Mountaineers won 90 percent (32-4) of their games since 2005.

After the loss, WVU has won 70 percent (17-7).

The game had the opposite effect for Pitt, which is 18-5 since that win over WVU in 2007.

Stewart called the game his worst Thanksgiving memory. Other players said that feeling after the loss will never leave them.

West Virginia expects to use the 2007 loss to Pitt as motivation today, as the Mountaineers take on the eighth-ranked team in the nation in the 102nd Backyard Brawl.

"We still have a lot to play for. It's the Backyard Brawl. It's Pitt," said senior receiver Wes Lyons. "We just have to play our game."

The Mountaineers have yet to put a complete game together, said senior linebacker Reed Williams.

"We haven't been able to find our identity all season long. We keep waiting for that game where we put everything together, but I haven't seen it yet," Williams said. "It's got to happen soon."

If WVU is able to pull off the upset, it would be the team's first win over a top-10 oppinent since beating No. 3 Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

A loss would be the third in a row to the Panthers. It would be the longest stretch of wins in the series for Pitt since it won seven straight from 1976-82.

Stewart discussed earlier this week how important this game is for bragging rights and an advantage in recruiting in the Western Pennsylvania area.

"It will be a very physical, emotional, hard-fought game. They all usually are," Stewart said. "If history repeats itself, this game will be like it has in the past — tough and very exciting."

A win for Brown, Lyons, Williams and the Mountaineers' other seniors would be a way to finish off their careers at Milan Puskar Stadium with some sense of accomplishment after failing to reach the team goal of winning a conference championship.

"This game means a lot to me," Brown said. "I'm glad they're ranked as high as they are. That makes it even better for us."

Williams said the team's new goal is to beat Pitt and finish with a 10-win season.

"We can lay down, or we can finish strong," he said. "We can really test the character of our football team right now."

Additional Information:

Backyard Brawl Game Day

No. 8 Pitt vs. West Virginia

Today, 7 p.m. • Milan Puskar Stadium, Morgantown, W.Va.

TV: ESPN2

Favorite: Pick'em

Records: Pitt 9-1, 5-0 Big East; West Virginia 7-3, 3-2

Last meeting: Pitt won, 19-15, last season at Heinz Field and leads the all-time series, 61-37-3.

Outlook: The Panthers, vying for their seventh consecutive win, have put together their best 10-game start since 1982. Pitt, coming off of its second bye week of the season, is ninth in the BCS poll and is looking to win the Backyard Brawl for the third consecutive year since winning seven straight from 1976-82. The visiting team has won 13 of the past 22 games. The Mountaineers are bowl eligible for the eighth consecutive year, which is best among Big East teams. They have compiled a 62-2 record when scoring 30 or more points since 2000.

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