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Game of the Year of the Day, 1982: Pitt 16, WVU 13

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Foge Fazio’s 1982 Pitt Panthers: one of the 50 best* of all time.

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Dan Marino Pitt athletics

The date: October 2, 1982

The matchup: No. 14 West Virginia (3-0) at No. 2 Pitt (3-0)

The stakes:

  1. It’s the Backyard Brawl.
  2. WVU has won this game only once in 10 years.
  3. A win would likely vault the Mountaineers into a single-digit poll ranking for the first time since 1955.
  4. A win would reestablish Pitt’s national title bona fides after a shaky start.

That’s a lot of stakes.

The back story: Pitt spent a good portion of 1981 ranked first in the country before a blowout loss to Penn State knocked the Panthers out of the running. But they finished the season with a thrilling Sugar Bowl win over No. 2 Georgia and returned enough talent — quarterback Dan Marino, offensive linemen Jimbo Covert and Bill Fralic, defensive end Chris Doleman, defensive tackle Bill Maas — to rank first in the ‘82 preseason polls despite losing head coach Johnny Majors to Texas A&M.

The offense was nearly a no-show against No. 5 UNC and No. 19 Illinois, however, and the Panthers were losing ground in the polls. Meanwhile, WVU began the season by upsetting No. 9 Oklahoma and entered the game as a slight favorite. Could Pitt rebound enough to keep its title hopes alive?

Yes, but just barely.

The game: From the Philadelphia Inquirer.

PITTSBURGH — Fourteenth-ranked West Virginia earned a couple of mandatory eight counts, but top-ranked Pittsburgh survived yesterday to score the knockout punches, coming back from a 13-0 fourth-quarter deficit to defeat the Mountaineers, 16-13. [...]

"Maybe I was taught that in the heat of the battle, you don't quit until the last whistle, or like a boxer that you hang in there until the 15th round for a last-second knockout," first-year Panthers coach Foge Fazio said after his team's dramatic finish. "I never doubted that we would come back."

Fazio might have been the only person among the 57,251 in the sellout crowd at Pitt Stadium who felt that way after WVU (3-1) made it 13-0 early in the fourth quarter when Darryl Talley blocked a Greg Ganzer punt on the Pitt 22. Talley chased the ball into the end zone and fell on it for a touchdown. [...]

Fazio said his players "got upset after that blocked punt."

"I've never seen Bill Fralic so mad," said Fazio. "Dan Marino bit his lip and gave me a look like he knew it was now or never."

Marino completed the now-or-never comeback with a six-yard scoring pass to Julius Dawkins with 3 minutes, 24 seconds to play, and Eric Schubert kicked the extra point to give the Panthers the 14-13 lead they never lost.

Via the magic of YouTube, you can watch the entire game here:

The fourth quarter begins at about the 77-minute mark.

The box score: Also via the Inquirer.

As was the case for much of 1982, Marino and the offense did just enough. Marino went 20-for-41 for 211 yards, a touchdown, and two picks, while WVU's Jeff Hostetler went 19-for-39 for 214 and a pick. The difference ended up coming mostly from the run game; Bryan Thomas and Bill Beach combined for 136 yards on 29 carries, while Hostetler led the way for WVU with just 39 yards.

For Pitt, this game simply delayed the inevitable. The Panthers finally slipped up in early November, falling to Notre Dame and first-year head coach Gerry Faust, 31-16. Three weeks later, they dropped a 19-10 heart-breaker to No. 2 Penn State (the Nittany Lions would go on to win the national title), and the receiving corps let Marino down drastically in a 7-3 Cotton Bowl loss to No. 4 SMU. From No. 1, Pitt finished 10th after a tense, dramatic, eventually disappointing campaign.

This just about brought Pitt's run of dominance to a close. The Panthers won the 1976 national title and pulled off four more top-10 finishes in five years from 1977-81. But despite spending most of two seasons at No. 1, the title never came for Marino and company. And after going 8-3-1 and finishing 18th in 1983, the Panthers would finish only one of the next 19 seasons ranked.

Still, this was one of the country’s elite programs for nearly a decade, and in 1982’s Backyard Brawl, Pitt pulled it together just in time.