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M.J. Devonshire’s Pitt Returns Make for Incredible Chapter in Backyard Brawl History



Pitt cornerback M.J. Devonshire.

PITTSBURGH — The hero of Thursday night’s Pitt win over West Virginia almost wasn’t in the building. He also almost played for the Mountaineers.

M.J. Devonshire took a long road — some of them country — to be waiting just over the 50-yard line for J.T. Daniels’ pass to deflect off the hands of receiver Bryce Ford-Wheaton and float directly into his path.

His heroics, which sealed a 38-31 victory for Pitt in the renewal of the Backyard Brawl after an 11-year hiatus, were improbable for many reasons, and will become a fabric of the rivalry that is one of the best in college sports.

Pitt and West Virginia are close neighbors. By car, it’s just over 70 miles from Pittsburgh to Morgantown. They are the closest Power Five opponents that do not reside in the same state, and only a handful of in-state schools are closer to one another.

But that’s proximity alone is not what makes the Backyard Brawl between the teams special.

The reason that it’s a Backyard Brawl is that the schools are so closely intertwined. They recruit the same players, they hire the same coaches and their fanbases overlap across much of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Former WVU kicker Pat McAfee, now a podcast host and WWE commentator, grew up in Plum, Pa. Current WVU linebacker Exree Loe is from Johnstown and was first committed to Pitt before changing paths and heading to Morgantown. Bethel Park native James Gmiter started on the West Virginia offensive line. Tackle Ja’Quay Hubbard is from Hermitage.

Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. grew up in Morgantown. His father coached the Mountaineers. His brother played quarterback at West Virginia.

Just about every high school in Western Pennsylvania that regularly produces Division I talent has sent players to both Pitt and West Virginia.

For the last decade, calling it the Living Room Brawl might be more apt, as the teams not meeting on the field did not at all deter them from competing for many of the same recruits, here and elsewhere.

Aliquippa is perhaps the most notable of those schools. Some of the school’s greatest alumni went to Pitt, starting with the great Mike Ditka and continuing with players like Sean Gilbert, Darrelle Revis and Jonathan Baldwin.
But in the last few years, West Virginia made some recruiting inroads with the Quips. Dravon Askew-Henry, Jaleel Fields and Kwantel Raines all joined the Mountaineers.

When cornerback M.J. Devonshire was being recruited, he had three former high school teammates at WVU, compared to just two at Pitt, and little-used walk-ons at that.

Devonshire forged his own path, first choosing to go to Kentucky out of high school, picking the Wildcats over the Panthers and Mountaineers in a last-minute decision. It was a decision that didn’t go over well in Oakland. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi announced that his recruiting class was complete an hour before Devonshire committed, ruining the surprise on the announcement at Aliquippa High School. It seemed like an intentional dig.

But after two seasons in Lexington, Devonshire set his sights on home, returning to Pittsburgh to play for the Panthers. Why did Devonshire come to Pitt after that first messy breakup?

The pull of the family, history and drama that surrounds games like that Backyard Brawl that just can’t be replicated playing somewhere other than close to home.

On Thursday, Devonshire made one of the most impactful plays in the 100-year history of the Backyard Brawl, intercepting a pass and returning it 56 yards for a touchdown into the raucous Pitt student section.

“A hundred percent, this is why I came back to Pitt, this type of game,” Devonshire said. “It’s the greatest rivalry in college football and I just did something crazy. I can’t wait to tell my kids.”

“We wanted MJ out of high school, and he went to Kentucky and then we were able to get him back,” Narduzzi said. “I really think we take care of our Pittsburgh guys. Our Pittsburgh guys are successful. Dayon Hayes had a nice day today as well. Our Pittsburgh guys that stay home and stay here, they are going to make a lot of plays.”

Devonshire had inspiration for his winding interception return down the right sideline from another Pittsburgh kid that stayed home. Revis, his fellow Aliquippa alum, had an incredible punt return touchdown for Pitt against West Virginia in 2006.

Devonshire was thinking about that play a lot this week in the hopes that he, too could do something special.

“All summer I’ve been thinking about it,” Devonshire said. “I watched Darrelle’s punt return. I was like, man, how crazy would it be? I told (Aliquippa alum and Pitt backup quarterback) Eli (Kosanovich), if I could run up the same sideline, do the same spin move, score a touchdown, like a crazy play?”

Devonshire was one of the best punt returners in WPIAL history when he was at Aliquippa, but Konata Mumpfield won that role for Pitt this season. Devonshire said he’s fine with that. He just needed to find another way to make an impact.

“I kind of just wanted to do what those guys did,” Devonshire said. “I think I did something.”

Coach Dave Wannstedt, architect of the most famous win in the history of the rivalry, Pitt’s improbable 13-9 victory in Morgantown in 2007, was Pitt’s honorary captain for the week, and in his speech to the team, told the team that someone would make history on Thursday night.

He was right, and it being a Western Pennsylvania player, back at Pitt playing for his hometown, makes it an even sweeter chapter in the annals of the history of the Backyard Brawl for the Panthers.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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