PITTSBURGH — 13-9.
It’s not likely many West Virginians played those numbers in any lottery combination this year. They’re still too recognizable, too painful, too emblematic of one of the bleakest days since the Mountaineers began playing football more than a century ago.
The score that cost West Virginia a national championship game appearance, and may have sent former coach Rich Rodriguez packing for Michigan.
Forget it? How could they? The score triggered so much anguish, so much second-guessing, so much finger-pointing, so many significant changes that it would be impossible for the Mountaineers to forget in only 12 months’ time.
“It was a terrible, terrible feeling,” cornerback Ellis Lankster said of that 13-9 upset loss by then-No. 2 West Virginia to Pitt a year ago this weekend. “Just terrible.”
The Mountaineers (7-3, 4-1 Big East) have insisted all week that revenge won’t be a factor when they play neighboring but not neighborly rival Pittsburgh (7-3, 3-2) in a nationally televised game Friday. They may be kidding only themselves.
Because the Mountaineers lost a game on their home field a year ago that virtually no one in their home state thought they could possibly lose, many West Virginians fear they may never again see their team so close to winning the national title.
“We ruined everything for them,” Pitt kicker Conor Lee said.
Winning Friday’s game, when only a non-major bowl bid may be decided, won’t ease West Virginia’s pain. But this is the first time the Mountaineers have played the Panthers since they lost the game of their lives, and they don’t want to lose again.
Not to Pitt. Not again.
“It’s just an hour up the road, just like Florida-Florida State,” West Virginia assistant Doc Holliday said of the 101-year-old rivalry known as the Backyard Brawl. “Any time you get schools that close together, you get fans and their passion, too.”
It’s why West Virginia residents proudly wear Pittsburgh Steelers T-shirts, but wouldn’t be caught wearing anything that says Pitt Panthers.
“I don’t know if they’ll say it, but they’ve been gunning for us all season,” Pitt linebacker Scott McKillop said. “As a player, we ruined their season last year, a lot of fans’ dreams of playing in a national championship game, so they’re going to be pumped for us.”
West Virginia has a flicker of hope of winning the Big East, but it would take the Mountaineers beating Pitt and South Florida on Dec. 6 and No. 16 Cincinnati losing to Syracuse on Saturday. Pitt’s chances ended when it lost 28-21 at Cincinnati last Saturday.
If Cincinnati beats Syracuse to claim the conference’s automatic BCS bowl bid, the West Virginia-Pitt winner could wind up in the Sun Bowl, with the Gator an outside possibility.
“It’s our big rival and we still can go to a good bowl game,” Pitt defensive end Jabaal Sheard said.
The challenge for Pitt is the same as a year ago: Contain mobile quarterback Pat White and his running back — this time, Noel Devine rather than former star Steve Slaton.
White ran for 220 yards in each game as West Virginia easily beat Pitt in 2005 and 2006, only to be held to 41 yards last season. Slaton, who ran for 394 yards in the previous two games, managed only 11 yards on nine carries.
“Everybody made us underdogs — big, 30-point underdogs — and we were 4-7 and weren’t going to a bowl game,” McKillop said. “We gave a fanatical effort on defense and didn’t make any big mistakes and we got the job done.”
Coach Dave Wannstedt said the effort in this game can’t be any less, even though neither rival is ranked in The Associated Press poll for the first time since 2001.
“This game ... people talk about it the rest of their lives,” said Wannstedt, a former Pitt player.
The Mountaineers still talk about how Pitt’s LeSean McCoy ran for 148 yards against them last year. McCoy, a sophomore but already a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, gave his teammates a lift this week by saying he’ll return for his junior season.
“I’m not going anywhere,” McCoy said.
And he’s hoping for another big game against West Virginia this season.
“We were very sound and focused,” Pitt defensive lineman Gus Mustakas said. “We can do it again this year, I believe, with the same type of performance. ... That’s the only way to be successful.”