MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WV News) — The most pressing — and depressing — question to come out of Thursday night’s Backyard Brawl West Virginia loss to Pitt to open the 2022 football season was not whether or not coach Neal Brown should have punted or gone for it on fourth and inches near midfield with about six minutes left to play and a seven-point lead.
It was, instead, a far more pressing and emotion-filled question, that being why on this particular night the fickle finger of fate chose to point at Mountaineer wide receiver Bryce Ford-Wheaton to etch his place into Backyard Brawl history.
Life, they say, can sometimes be cruel, and this certainly was an unwarranted, undeserved mark upon one of the nicest, most dedicated Mountaineers ever to wear the uniform, especially the specially designed Country Roads uniforms brought out for the occasion of the renewal of the Backyard Brawl.
During the week leading up to the game we had documented how deeply Bryce Ford-Wheaton’s roots were in this series, his grandfather, Garrett Ford Sr., having produced one of the greatest offensive games in the series’ history and his uncle, Garrett Ford Jr., also having been a starter and contributor for WVU.
Now, Ford-Wheaton was putting his mark on the series as a third-generation Mountaineer and was caught up in making it a game that could be stamped one of the greatest ever by a WVU receiver.
Then, in one blinding instant, he literally let the glory and the victory slip through his hand.
He went, if you would, from G.O.A.T. to goat as he somehow lost concentration for just a second, didn’t look a wide-open pass into his hands, instead letting it slip through his fingers.
Mistakes happen, but fate can be so unkind. Had it just been a drop, no big deal. The score still would have been tied at 31-31.
But this ball slipped through his hands and flew past him into the waiting arms of a defender some 10 yards behind him. Almost stunned as the ball came to him, M.J. Devonshire instinctively grabbed the ball and weaved his way 56 yards into the end zone for the touchdown with 2:58 to play.
Think of the odds. From G.O.A.T. to goat because the tipped ball somehow flew to just the wrong point in space, interrupting what had to that point been a game in which he most likely would have been presented with the game ball in a locker room ceremony.
That the pass was intended for him showed that at a key moment in time, his quarterback, J.T. Daniels, had within just one game as a Mountaineer gained the confidence in Ford-Wheaton to be the man in that situation.
“If I throw Bryce a thousand stop routes, that may happen once. It was a fluke,” Daniels said after the game.
Neal Brown summed up Ford-Wheaton’s accomplishments that night in an effort to point out how undeserving that he would have to wear this one play tattooed upon his legacy forever.
“He made two touchdowns,” Brown began, referring to a pair of catches from Daniels.
“We had two drops tonight,” he continued, understating that fact slightly. “We threw the ball 40 times and we had only two drops. One of them was inopportune.”
That, of course, was Ford-Wheaton’s.
“The kid also played his (rear) off. I thought he fought. He not only did that, but he made a play on the punt, coming down,” Brown went on.
That was a vicious special teams play — yes, as a starter he was covering punts, too — where he brought a returner down with a high tackle that maybe could have been called a foul but which showed the effort with which he was playing the game.
Not that it needed to be shown, for among his game-high nine receptions, Ford-Wheaton had a miraculous catch in which he threw caution and safety to the wind as he flew high into the air to steal a fluttering pass away from four Pitt defenders on a play where Daniels’ arm was hit as he released the throw.
It was so spectacular, difficult and dangerous a play that in writing my running game story I called it “the catch of the year”, fully aware that this year was simply 30 minutes or so old but trying to emphasize that it really was a special play.
Two touchdowns, a spectacular catch among nine receptions, a very special special -team tackle ... the night and the game belonged to Ford-Wheaton.
True, it was snatched away from him, but the belief here is that the real Bryce Ford-Wheaton is the one that we’ve come to know in his five years at West Virginia, the talented, well-rounded and well-grounded young man who will live for his next big moment.