The most famous fullback in West Virginia history owns a spot just off Interstate 68 in Morgantown. Owen Schmitt’s Saloon is part bar, part country music concert hall. Platinum band Parmalee is coming in a few weeks.
His white Mountaineers jersey backs the main bar, surrounded by helmets from WVU and his three NFL teams. There’s a MOUNTAINEERS paddle overhead. But his place has more music posters than memorabilia from his career. Schmitt and his mom shoulder much of the load.
Ten years ago, Schmitt was a senior leader on a top-10 team that came a whisker from the BCS Championship. Now he’s part of the ecosystem that feeds off Mountaineer football.
"It is this community," Schmitt tells me, while we’re sitting at a high-top in the back corner. "If the football program wasn’t here, what would Morgantown be? I mean, don’t get me wrong. [Coach Bob] Huggins does a great job with basketball, and that’s great, but that stadium holds, what, 18,000 people?
"When the university goes and plays Virginia Tech down at FedEx Field, that’s all the profits and revenue that this town would get from one football [game]. Football keeps this town in business. You know what I mean? When people come in for the weekends, think of all the money that’s being spent here, all the revenue.
"Lot of the times, football gets people through the year."
Schmitt’s Saloon is busy on weekends, but game days are a different animal.
"If you look at the mass quantities, football brings in, what, 60, 65,000 people every Saturday? You know what I mean? So, yeah, I’d say it has definitely a stranglehold on this community."
The football’s never been better than it was in ‘07.
If you’re not an elite recruiter, you only get a title shot when the stars align. That year, West Virginia had the alignment right.
- The QB was Pat White, an electrifying junior who’d been a Sports Illustrated cover boy with running back Steve Slaton and Schmitt.
- Five-star freshman back Noel Devine joined up.
- The ‘Eers were the epitome of run-first, but they had receiver Darius Reynaud, whom Schmitt once saw jump atop a six-foot biometric box.
- The defense returned 10 starters from 2006’s 11-win team.
- Coach Rich Rodriguez, the architect of the zone read, would call that play to death.
West Virginia had title hype in ‘05, when it finished No. 5 in the AP Top 25, and in ‘06, when it started there. But ‘07 stacked up as Rodriguez’s best team.
"It all comes back to how prolific of a team it was offensively and defensively," says Matt Kirchner, an editor at West Virginia blog The Smoking Musket and a season ticket-holder that year. "It was sort of a culmination of the 2005 and 2006 seasons, where they were really good, won 10 games both of those years but just couldn’t get it together on defense a few times.
"And then 2007, it all came together."
It’s hard to overstate how fun ‘07 West Virginia was.
The offense scored 40 points per game, ninth-most in the country, despite running 70 percent of the time. White was a magician like Vince Young, throwing for 8 yards an attempt and running for 6.8. He and Slaton each finished above 1,000 yards, with Devine in the 600s. Schmitt was their escort, and Reynaud (with 12 touchdowns) the main option when WVU got bored of running.
The philosophy, per Schmitt: "just score a bunch of fucking points and win the games."
"I thought our schemes in general were kept very simple, which allowed us as players to not have to think and more so react," Schmitt says. "So what does that do? That lets an athlete be an athlete. You know what I mean? You don’t want an athlete thinking, because that’s gonna slow him down.
"I think we had 12 plays, maybe. Ran ‘em out of like 12 different formations, a couple of motions, different personnels. So we gave you a ton of different looks, but we ran the same plays.
"I think [Rodriguez] is a genius, honestly. Some coaches get it. Some coaches don’t."
The defense was close to as good, led by junior linebackers Reed Williams and Mortty Ivy.
With White hurt, WVU lost to future No. 2 USF, 21-13, seemingly ending title hopes. A Big East team with a loss wasn’t supposed to make the BCS title game.
But White returned, and the ‘Eers won their next six games to get to 10-1.
"There was a lot of hype, and then it just seemed like every week, shit was just falling into place. You know what I mean?" Schmitt says. "And teams were losing that needed to lose for us to move up, and it was happening."
WVU climbed from No. 9 in the Week 7 BCS standings to No. 2 by Week 13. A home win as a 28.5-point favorite against 4-7 Pitt in the Backyard Brawl would send the Mountaineers to the BCS Championship.
"And then you get to the fucking last game of the season and blow it," Schmitt says, "against the shittiest fucking team in the fucking world."
What if WVU had beaten Pitt?
This was about more than just West Virginia missing a chance at a big trophy because its rival ruined its season. That’s unfortunate, but not unprecedented.
What is remarkable is how the aftermath changed the trajectory of, like, six major programs. Maybe even more.
West Virginia is one, obviously.
Then there’s Ohio State.
The Buckeyes had locked up No. 1, even though they had been upset by Illinois in their second-to-last game. They boasted the best defense, but their offense was much less elite, and many suspected Ohio State’s ranking had more to do with the fact that nobody else could stay highly ranked more than two weeks.
With West Virginia losing, there weren’t one-loss teams to match up against Ohio State. Kansas had one loss but didn’t win its division. Hawaii was undefeated but beat mostly terrible teams in the WAC.
That means LSU is another.
The SEC champion, whose two losses came in triple overtime (against decent Kentucky and Arkansas teams), earned the other spot. The Tigers were excellent and a bad matchup for the Buckeyes. While there has been some revisionist history — helped by Florida blowing the Buckeyes’ doors off in the previous title game — LSU’s speed all over was superior to Ohio State’s.
If WVU beats Pitt, your title game is Ohio State vs. West Virginia, and LSU’s stuck in the Sugar Bowl.
When Pitt plays at WVU, the Panthers don’t get a Morgantown hotel. They stay in Washington, Pa., a little less than halfway between their campus and Milan Puskar Stadium.
"They’d probably have been pulling the fire alarms and knocking on our doors all night," says Eric Thatcher, a former Pitt defensive back and current FIU assistant.
When Pitt’s buses rolled up a few hours before a night kickoff, they had a greeting party. Accounts vary about what, but everyone agrees something — rocks, batteries, bottles, or cans — pelted Pitt’s buses.
"It was definitely a very, very hostile atmosphere for us to go in, and it’s very obvious when they know the visitor bus is coming in," Scott McKillop, a linebacker, says. "There’s always certain fans that try ... I don’t wanna say intimidate. It’s always interesting when you’re an away team and you play in a stadium and you see how creative the fans are, how much they know about you, and how much background information they find about you. When you hear something you’ve never heard before, it’s always pretty impressive."
Freshman running back LeSean McCoy spoke up. He talked about Pitt’s opportunity in the spotlight, but he took an edge off too.
"Our bus was quiet," says Dave Wannstedt, Pitt’s head coach then and a current Fox analyst. "I was on the first bus, riding it with the offense, and it was quiet. Sure enough, somebody either banged on the side of the bus or threw something at the side of the bus, and I remember Sean kind of turned and said, ‘Hey, Coach, it’s just like we talked about in all the meetings.’ Everybody started laughing and stuff."
Wannstedt has been all over, but he’s Pittsburgh to the core.
From the city’s South Hills, he played offensive tackle for the school in 1970s. He’s got a Pittsburgh accent. He was a graduate assistant for four years under Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill, including Pitt’s 1976 title season. When Wannstedt returned as head coach in 2005, he brought rivalry history.
In the week leading up to the Brawl, Wannstedt blasted John Denver’s "Take Me Home, Country Roads," a WVU anthem, all around Pitt’s facility and practice fields. He’d gotten the same treatment as a player 35 years earlier and says he was "as sick of that as the players, but I could never tell them." He’d brought back former players to regale his team with tales of Pitt-WVU games. Two were on staff: offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh and line coach Paul Dunn.
Pitt players were told to wear their helmets on the sidelines, in case they had coins thrown at them. Nobody thinks any coins were thrown, though.
Pitt knew it would only beat West Virginia one way.
The Panthers would play cover-zero all night, eschewing deep safeties in favor of eight- and nine-man boxes near the line of scrimmage. They’d clog lanes and make tackles. Maybe White and Reynaud would torch them downfield, but maybe they wouldn’t.
"We said, ‘Y’all wasn’t gonna try to beat us with the pass,’" Thatcher remembers. "We knew it was cold out, and they was gonna try to run that ball, and that running attack — Pat White, Steve Slaton, Owen Schmitt, Noel Devine — those dudes was unbelievable."
The Mountaineers did not try a barrage of deep shots. Pitt held the ‘Eers to 101 ground yards on 41 carries. Pitt’s safeties never backed off, but Rodriguez forged ahead with the run anyway.
"I think the play calling was atrocious," Schmitt, who otherwise speaks about Rodriguez with reverence, says.
"It just wasn’t our game plan, you know? They were playing us fucking man. We should’ve been lobbing the fucking ball in the air and fucking telling our guys to go get it. I mean, that’s how fucking simple it would’ve been, dude."
White had exited with a thumb injury, and backup Jarrett Brown didn’t move the ball much. Pitt’s kicker, Conor Lee, flushed a career-long 48-yard field goal as the second quarter expired. West Virginia only led 7-3 at halftime.
"My time at Pitt, we had been kind of a .500 ball club until my senior year when we won nine games," Lee says. "So I really hadn’t kicked in any, like, big moments yet. That was kind of the biggest moment I’d kicked in. It was a great thing going to halftime, too. I remember people being pretty amped up."
Players and coaches say they realized at different points that Pitt could win. Schmitt’s moment of reckoning:
"Halftime, you make adjustments," he says. "We didn’t make ‘em. We might’ve made minor ones, but obviously they weren’t the right ones."
Pitt still needed a perfect storm to actually win.
White had fallen on his right (non-throwing) hand on a keeper in the second quarter and reportedly dislocated his thumb.
"I just wanted to help the team as much as I can," White said afterward. "It was killing me, sitting on the sidelines."
ESPN picked up White taking snaps on the sideline and telling trainers he was OK. He had a "desperate" look on his face, Holly Rowe said. He re-entered late in the fourth, when Pitt’s lead was 13-7.
"I’ll say this: If he wanted to fucking play, he would’ve played," Schmitt says. "I mean, it was for the national championship. I mean, you — what do you think?
"Quite honestly, you would’ve had to rip my fucking head off and take my heart out of my chest," he says. "But that’s just me. You know what I mean? Hopefully everybody shares that kind of passion, but, you know, it’s different when it comes to other people. You know what I mean? But, you know, I thought Jarrett did fine when he was in there. Just rough play-calling."
I contacted White, but couldn't get in touch with him.
It’s not clear if a few more drives of his presence, while injured, would’ve made the difference. Pitt contained him when he was on the field, including before his injury.
"I think [White’s injury] was a huge factor. If he would’ve been out there, if we play 100 times, we might win one time," Pitt’s McKillop says.
"And I think most of us would probably say that. And I think that when he went down, that whole entire offense, their energy was just drained. It was like, ‘Oh my god, what’s wrong?’"
True freshman Pat Bostick gave Pitt its first lead on a QB keeper with 25 minutes left. A decade later, Bostick doesn’t recall most of it.
"I just remember taking the snap, trying to get low," he says, "but it was difficult, and I remember getting hit and then seeing stars, and the next thing I remember, I remember looking down and seeing yellow, which was the paint of the end zone."
"Had that been 2016, ‘17, now, I’m not blaming anybody or saying that — but I might not have played the rest of the game," he adds, "‘cause I’m pretty sure I had a concussion."
(To that point, the end-zone paint Bostick landed on was blue, not yellow.)
Defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads stuck with the plan: Load the box, contain, and tackle.
Pitt shares a practice facility with the Steelers on Pittsburgh’s South Side. The indoor is just one field, and despite it being November, the Panthers had held a practice on the more spacious outdoor fields. Wannstedt saw Rhoads going through routine tackling drills.
"It was kinda a time of practice when usually that stuff was over with," Wannstedt says. "So I go back, and the offense is running plays, and we’re into it. And I turn around about 10 minutes, 15 minutes later, and he’s going through a different type of tackling. So I walk over and I say, ‘Hey, Paul, what’s going on? What are we doing?’
"And he says, ‘Coach, you know what? This game is gonna come down to tackling. And if we don’t tackle these guys, we can draw up every defense in the world on the board, and we can’t stop ‘em. We have to be able to tackle.’"
"I was a young player, but I was running around out there, flying, really trying to be aggressive and take these guys out," defensive end Greg Romeus says. "I think that’s what the whole history of the Backyard Brawl is. It’s two teams that really dislike each other on the field. It was one of those things where that’s the way to win this game, is to be the most physical team."
Wannstedt thinks Pitt missed eight tackles. Thatcher thinks it was two. WVU’s offense totaled 183 yards and one touchdown. Its season averages were 456 and five, respectively.
Pitt didn’t find WVU’s end zone after Bostick’s sneak. But the Panthers controlled the ball enough to keep WVU’s offense on the sidelines. McCoy ran 38 times for 148 yards, the most movement either side could muster.
West Virginia, down six, threatened twice in the final five minutes.
On a fourth-and-3 from Pitt’s 26 with 4:07 to play, White handed the ball to Slaton on a zone read, and McKillop closed a crease.
"I remember it clicked in my mind, like, ‘OK, Scott, this is probably a pretty big play. You should probably celebrate,’" McKillop says. "And I did something that was just like a double-arm fist, and it was so awkward, and of course it’s the one play that a lot of the Pitt fans will remember me for."
WVU got inside Pitt’s 30 in the last two minutes, but White overshot Wes Lyons on an impossible fourth-and-17. Thatcher drew a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct. He says the referee told him he’d flicked off the home crowd, and Wannstedt was "ready to kill me." The crowd thought WVU would get another shot, but this was a dead-ball foul. In the locker room, Thatcher showed his coach that his fingers had been taped under his gloves. He couldn’t have put up his middle finger if he’d wanted to.
Pitt backed into the win, literally.
Pitt drained the clock to four seconds. Instead of risking a blocked punt or return, Wannstedt had punter Dave Brytus stall and step out of his own end zone at :00. Pitt had practiced the play all year. The self-safety created an iconic final score: 13-9.
"The opportunity to use it doesn’t come up," Wannstedt says. "That time, it did."
The upset "definitely had an impact throughout the country," Wannstedt says.
No. 1 Missouri would lose on the same night in the Big 12 title game to Oklahoma. The two losses made Ohio State vs. LSU the national title game instead of Mizzou vs. WVU.
Wannstedt later coached linebackers for the Buffalo Bills. Wannstedt asked draftee Kelvin Sheppard, an LSU linebacker, to remember a great moment from his college career.
Sheppard described the Tigers flying to Baton Rouge after winning the SEC Championship Game. The pilot told them WVU had fallen, and the plane went into chaos.
"I’ve never seen a situation like that plane, how it went crazy," he says Sheppard responded.
"Kelvin, who do you think was coaching Pitt at the time?" Wannstedt says he replied.
McKillop describes hearing the plane story from 49ers teammate Ricky-Jean Francois, a lineman on that LSU team.
Rodriguez left for Michigan before WVU’s Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma.
Schmitt was the star, with a 57-yard run for WVU’s first touchdown and a viral interview.
"Like a runaway beer truck," Fox’s Matt Vasgersian called him during that touchdown. A decade later, my burger at the saloon is named the Beer Truck Burger.
"This place gave me so many opportunities," Schmitt says. "You know what I mean? I could’ve never been more thankful for what it had offered me. So, plus, Oklahoma was talking all sorts of shit — basically saying, win or lose, it doesn’t really do much for them to be playing us and shit. You know what I mean? But we whipped their ass."
Rodriguez would be reviled in the state for years. His replacement, Fiesta Bowl winner Bill Stewart, has a highway exit named after him near campus.
"The one thing, and I probably said it to him: He could’ve just finished the year out, and that would’ve been whatever," Schmitt says. "But it’s been so many years removed. I mean, I know people hold a grudge, but ... you know what I mean? Obviously the university didn’t think he was good enough, or they would’ve worked a deal out.
"That’s business, and that’s unfortunately the game of college football. It’s nuts, dude."
Pitt’s bus ride out of Morgantown was a lot different than the one in.
"Getting out of there, it was like a ghost town," Bostick says.
"It was a pretty depressing scene, I guess, from a West Virginia fan’s perspective, and I understand why. It was empty, and you could’ve probably heard a pin drop outside the confines of our buses."
On the ride home up Interstate 79, the Pitt QB's bus broke into song:
"Take me home, country roads."