Pitt, WVU set for Backyard Brawl

Roger Sepich | November 22, 2010    

It’s hard to imagine a 6-4 football team playing in a bigger game than Pitt will this Friday… It’s hard to imagine a 6-4 football team playing in a bigger game than Pitt will this Friday at noon.

That’s because the Panthers will host rival West Virginia in the 103rd edition of the annual game known as The Backyard Brawl, a game in which there is far more at stake than just bragging rights.

The Mountaineers (7-3, 3-2) are already Pitt’s fiercest rival. Throw in some massive Big East Championship and BCS bowl implications, Pitt’s senior day, some flashy new Nike Pro Combat uniforms for both teams and a national television audience, and you’ve got the formula for one incredibly important football game.

“I love to play in games likes this,”said  senior defensive end Jabaal Sheard, one of the 11 seniors who will be acknowledged before their final home game. “This is the game of the year for Pitt football.”

“This is the best game of the year,” fellow senior and offensive tackle Jason Pinkston said. “It’s West Virginia. There’s nothing better.”

The Panthers, who are 4-1 in Big East play following a hard-fought 17-10 victory at South Florida this past weekend, have a one-game conference lead and still control their own destiny, but they can’t afford a slip up against the Mountaineers or next week against Cincinnati.

“If we want to win the Big East Championship, we’ve got to win these next two games, and we know that,” Pinkston said.

With two weeks of football to play, the Big East title race has narrowed itself to a three horse race: Pitt, West Virginia and Connecticut.

Because of the head-to-head tie-breaker rule and Pitt’s previous loss at Connecticut, a loss to the Mountaineers would all but eliminate Pitt. A win would put them on the brink of a title, with a chance to avenge last season’s heartbreaking loss to Cincinnati and clinch the Big East in their final game.

Since the turn of the millennium, Backyard Brawls have been full of incredible moments. From Tyler Palko’s leap over Adam “Pacman” Jones in 2004 and Darrelle Revis’ sensational punt return in 2006, to the memorable 13-9 Pitt victory in 2007 that denied West Virginia a National Championship game berth and last year’s last-second game-winning field-goal in WVU’s 19-16 win.

The past decade of Brawls, which is split with each team winning five, has featured games which, if anything, have taught Pitt and WVU fans alike to expect the unexpected.

This year’s game, which features a matchup of two of the nation’s most feared rushing attacks, should be no different. Mountaineer quarterback Geno Smith and veteran running back Noel Devine lead their speedy spread-option ground game, and Dion Lewis and Ray Graham pace the Panthers’ power running game.

Devine is fifth in the Big East in rushing with 828 yards and has the quickness to break off a long run at any time.

Both Sheard and Pinkston know this game could be won or lost in the muddy trenches of Heinz Field.

“[Smith and Devine] are just so fast and talented,” Sheard said, “But if we can control them I feel like we should win the game.”

“If we’ve got to run the ball 80 times to get the win, that’s what we’re going to do,” Pinkston said.

As is typical in a duel between two rushing-heavy teams, Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt expects a close, grind-it-out game that will be decided by special teams, turnovers and penalties.

“It will probably come down to the team that doesn’t make the biggest plays, but the team that makes the fewest amount of bad plays,” he said. “That falls into turnovers and obviously penalties. The kicking game will be a major factor too, but I have all the confidence in the world in Dan Hutchins.”

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