MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

West Virginia fans are barking at head football coach Neal Brown these days.

Actually, WVU fans have been barking at Neal Brown for a couple of years now, and I get it, as Mountaineer fans, boosters and alums are ready to start looking down from the climb rather than still being in position to #TrustTheClimb.

Of course, the Big 12 is no easy conference for many teams to climb through, particularly one from a school located on the other side of the country as most of the conference’s member schools are.

Not ideal.

Yet the most recent barking at Neal Brown has nothing in particular to do with the Big 12, but with WVU’s 38-31 loss last Thursday night to Pittsburgh; or Pitt, as in eat … never mind, which is far more serious and worse than a Big 12 loss.

If the loss itself hasn’t been bad enough for WVU fans, maybe a video released by the Pitt football program of Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi being recorded in a pregame conversation with Brown is, with Brown saying to Narduzzi, “Lots of buildup for one game.”

Not ideal, as somebody needs to tell Neal the reason they’ve always called the WVU-Pitt game “The Backyard Brawl” is because it is just that, which is to say it’s always been kind of a big deal, particularly the first time they play it in 11 years.

Yet the initial most-recent barking began even before last Thursday’s Brawl was completed, as with 6:30 to go in the game, Brown, with WVU leading 31-24, elected not to go for a first down, but to punt on fourth down with less than a yard to go from the Pitt 48.

Rather, Brown took a delay-of-game penalty and punted from the 43 and pinned Pitt back on its 2-yard line, meaning the Panthers would have to go 98 yards to score a touchdown and an extra point to tie the game. So, the right call by Brown, right?

Except Pitt drove 98 yards for a touchdown and extra point to tie the game.

Things were still well in hand, though … Well, no they weren’t, as WVU’s best receiver of the night let a pass on the ensuing Mountaineer possession slip though his hands and into the hands of a Pitt defender 10 yards behind him, allowing him to run 56 yards into the end zone for what would be the game-deciding touchdown.

So, uh, that wasn’t, I don’t know … ideal?

Personally, I believe Brown’s decision and his rationale to make the decision to punt were sound. Neal Brown is one of the new wave of head coaches who believes in the power of analytics, and Neal Brown’s analytics told him the odds of the Pitt defense stopping the WVU offense on that fourth down were very high. So Neal Brown punted.

The decision to punt did not lose the game for WVU. The decision to punt, in fact, worked perfectly for WVU, as it pinned Pittsburgh down 98 yards away from even having an opportunity to tie the game with six minutes left on the clock.

WVU’s inability to stop the Pitt drive, though, and WVU’s inability to hold on to a crucial pass, and WVU losing its best defensive back to a targeting call had far more to do with WVU’s losing than Neal Brown’s decision to punt did.

But he still shouldn’t have punted. He should have gone for it.

If Neal Brown had been coaching the No. 17-ranked team in the country as Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi was, then, yes, by all means, play field position and punt. Pitt would have had far too much to lose than to take a chance on giving an opponent less than half the field while holding a lead that late into the game.

What did #TrustTheClimb have to lose? Particularly since everybody is still being implored to trust the climb; meaning the actual climb is still afoot.

West Virginia had the momentum, it had the crowd; in fact, it had the homefield advantage on Pitt’s home field, and it had an opportunity to do what climbers have done since the beginning of recorded time.

Why did you go for it on fourth and less than a yard?

Because it was there.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT