MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – For some WVU (1-1) players, Saturday’s Backyard Brawl against Pitt (1-1) is a chance at revenge.
Everyone else – from transfers to freshmen – will get their first taste of one of the country’s most bitter rivalries this Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium. Words can only do it so much of a justice.
“It’s a real rivalry,” right guard Brandon Yates said. “It’s not one of those rivalries that you just say is a rivalry because it’s a kind of regional thing. It’s genuine that we are rivals with each other, and we really want to beat each other and compete.”
This year’s Brawl is the marquee home matchup for WVU’s 2023 season. Mini-packages that included the Backyard Brawl and limited single-game tickets sold out in August. This mirrors last year’s matchup that set an attendance record for Pittsburgh sporting events with over 70,000 spectators.
“Just going in there, it was kind of surreal,” Yates said. “It was a different kind of atmosphere, different kind of energy. You feel like you’re a part of that history. Every person that’s been in that atmosphere [and] that situation, you understand that feeling, that atmosphere [of] the Backyard Brawl. It feels certainly different. The energy is always there. It was loud, people were screaming, it was definitely a great place to be.”
At this point in their careers, whether they are new to WVU or not, pretty much everyone on the team knows the feeling of a rivalry game. But the Brawl, its history and its hiatus all marinate to produce one of the most watchable rivalries in college football.
For example, safety Beanie Bishop – who transferred from Minnesota – experienced a historic rivalry when the Golden Gophers played Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. When he played at Western Kentucky, there was also serious bad blood with Marshall.
Neither of which carried as much year-round hatred as the Backyard Brawl, according to Bishop.
“This is heated,” head coach Neal Brown said. “And we understand that, and our players are looking forward to getting back into that.”
“I am very excited for it,” Bishop added. “Especially after all the guys explained some of the history behind it, and a lot of the hatred. Just seeing that, not only from teammates. but from fans. If I go into stores and go get food and I have my West Virginia stuff on, they’re like, ‘Let’s beat Pitt!’ It’s like the main thing. Even before the season started that’s the focus.”
Rivalry games tend to produce heroic moments, and they can even reveal cult heroes in the process. While CJ Donaldson’s performance (seven carries, 125 yards, one touchdown) in last year’s Brawl was just short of heroic, it’s certainly one of the bright spots remembered by players, coaches and fans alike.
“Like CJ did last year, we always preach that one game can change your life” running back Jaylen Anderson said. “We never try to over-press to do [well] in any certain game, but yeah. We definitely know the significance of it.”
So, there are different motivations for each WVU player that will take the field Saturday, but they all recognize that Saturday’s game just means a little bit more.
“It’s what we live for,” Anderson said. “It’s why we play football.”