Starkey: The miracle of 13-9
Ex-Pitt linebacker Scott McKillop might be the most polite, politically correct athlete I've covered.
Until somebody mentions 13-9.
The pre-game scene is seared onto McKillop's psyche. He remembers West Virginia fans hurling beer cans and insults at the Pitt bus as it pulled up to Milan Puskar Stadium on Dec. 1, 2007. He recalls West Virginia players telling him where they would be staying for the national championship game.
All the Mountaineers had to do was win — and they were 28-point favorites. Post-game fireworks shows were planned throughout the state.
That is why, when he runs into West Virginia fans and former players, McKillop goes out of his way to nudge 13-9 into the conversation.
As in: Pitt 13, West Virginia 9.
"I like to reiterate the fact that we basically ruined their whole entire college career," he says. "Nothing brings me more pleasure than when I say, '13-9.' The face they give me is just priceless."
He was just warming up.
"You can't say it when you play, because you give them bulletin-board material, but I (expletive) hate West Virginia. I can't stand the state. I just don't like that university. I guess now you can print me saying it."
I guess I just did.
And I still can't believe Pitt won.
Having witnessed Sidney Crosby's comeback Monday night, Mario Lemieux's mind-blowing return from retirement and Ben Roethlisberger's tackle in Indianapolis, I must say: None of it matches 13-9 on the implausibility meter.
In the previous two Backyard Brawls, West Virginia had totaled 1,133 yards and 90 points. A week earlier, it dropped 66 points on UConn, as Pitt was falling to 4-7 with a 48-37 loss to USF.
West Virginia stars Pat White, Steve Slaton & Co. would score 48 against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. But on this night they would manage all of seven offensive points and 183 yards on 3.2 yards per play.
I'm not sure the Miracle on Ice was more improbable.
Pitt's quarterback was true freshman Pat Bostick. He recounts his experience with hilarious humility. The Panthers stayed in Washington, Pa., the night before the game. Bostick woke up with blood on his pillow. Wicked ear infection.
"Here I am, a freshman, probably not ready to play. I'm sick, and I'm going into West Virginia," recalls Bostick, now Pitt's radio analyst. "I was thinking, 'This is set up for disaster.' When I threw a pick on the first play, that just confirmed my feelings."
What settled him?
"After my second pick, I said, 'Well, it can't get any worse; let's just manage the game.' We drew inspiration from our defense."
Pitt played a risky blitzing scheme with a single high safety. West Virginia never adjusted.
"We ran one and only one defense the whole second half," McKillop says. "I don't know if that fact is out there. I guess I'll spill the beans. We had one adjustment based on where the running back lined up. I was thinking, 'Are they ever going to pick up on this?' "
Two days after the game, I sat down with then-defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads and reviewed video of the massacre. He showed me both of Pitt's missed tackles (yes, there were only two).
Now coach at Iowa State, Rhoads used 13-9 as motivation for his team — a 27-point underdog — against No. 2 Oklahoma State last weekend.
Iowa State scored a 37-31 upset. On their drive home, Rhoads and his wife listened to a voice message from long-time Pitt assistant Bob Junko. Several other Pitt people — including McKillop — sent congratulatory texts.
Rhoads holds a special place for 13-9.
"The best of my memories from my time at Pitt," he says.
Though busily preparing for Oklahoma, Rhoads talked for 10 minutes about Dec. 1, 2007. He was about to hang up when he quickly added, "If I remember correctly, it was the 100th edition. I love rivalry games. Hail to Pitt."
McKillop is in town rehabbing a knee injury and hoping to get back in the NFL. The 49ers released him in August. He watched the Iowa State upset with ex-teammates Austin Ransom and Adam Gunn.
The three could relate to Iowa State's locker-room celebration. They'd enjoyed a similar one four years earlier, not knowing only a wall separated them from where West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez was delivering perhaps the most tortured post-game media address of all-time.
"I remember watching that on YouTube, and you can hear us in the background," McKillop says. "We had no intentions of making the noise heard into RichRod's news conference. You can see it bothers him a little bit.
"If we would have known, I'm sure we would have been 10 times louder."