Column | Breaking down the position groups in the Backyard Brawl


TPN File Photo

Pitt football players at the start of a game at Acrisure Stadium.

By Frankie Richetti, Senior Staff Writer

The last time Pitt and West Virginia met on a football field was Nov. 25, 2011

Tino Sunseri was the Panthers’ starting quarterback that night. Sunseri said the reason you put on a Pitt uniform is to participate in the Backyard Brawl.

While that isn’t the case for the 2022 version of the Panthers — given that the two teams haven’t played in 11 years — the “big game” feel is still there. College Gameday is coming to town. Fans are going at it. Even Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi did some trolling of his own earlier in the offseason, tweeting out a graphic with a reference to Pitt’s 13-9 victory over No. 2 West Virginia in 2007, which ended their national championship hopes. 

So who will hold the edge when these two bitter rivals square off Thursday night? Here is a head-to-head breakdown of how each position group stacks up against each other and which team has the edge. 


Once teammates at USC, West Virginia senior quarterback JT Daniels and Pitt senior quarterback Kedon Slovis will face off in this one. 

Daniels arrived at USC as a five-star recruit, but a season-ending injury against Fresno State in week one of the 2019 season forced Slovis into the spotlight. Slovis made the most of the opportunity, earning PAC-12 Freshman of the Year honors

Daniels transferred to Georgia in 2020 and found success — going 7-0 combined as a starter, including a Peach Bowl victory over Cincinnati — but injuries again got the best of him. Slovis, on the other hand, also struggled with injuries last fall, forcing him into a backup role. 

Although I believe Slovis finishes the season as the better quarterback, Daniels gets the slight edge heading into the Brawl because of his familiarity with West Virginia offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. 

Edge: Mountaineers

Running back

Pitt returns its stable of running backs — sophomore Rodney Hammond, junior Izzy Abanikanda and senior Vincent Davis — who combined for 19 touchdowns last season.

West Virginia won’t bring back star running back Leddie Brown this season. Brown, who is now with the Los Angeles Chargers, racked up back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons on the ground for the Mountaineers. Sophomore Tony Mathis Jr. — who recorded over 100 yards in their regular season finale against Kansas — is next in line for West Virginia. 

The Mountaineers don’t have a running back on the current roster who ran for a touchdown last season, so the Panthers have the clear advantage here. 

Edge: Panthers

Wide Receiver/Tight End

Both teams lost their leading receivers from a year ago to the transfer portal, but there’s still plenty of talent on both sides. 

The Mountaineers’ trio of wideouts — Bryce Ford-Wheaton, Sam Jones and Kaden Prather — have a high ceiling. The combination of Daniels and Harrell can help the three reach that potential as well. Prather in particular has star potential. 

Pitt added freshman All-American Konata Mumpfield and sophomore Bub Means — who averaged almost 20 yards per catch last season at Louisiana Tech — to the mix this offseason. Junior Jared Wayne hauled in six touchdowns last year and is in line for an uptick in volume. Sophomore tight end Gavin Bartholomew checked in at No. 2 in Yards After Catch amongst all tight ends in the nation last season. 

Pitt’s depth gives them the upper hand here, with junior Jaylon Barden and sophomore Jaden Bradley stepping into expanded roles. 

Edge: Panthers

Offensive Line

Pitt and West Virginia are two of just eight teams nationally set to return their entire starting offensive line. 

The Mountaineers have great individual talent on the line. Sophomore center Zach Frazier is a preseason Walter Camp All-American after earning second team honors a year ago. Sophomore left tackle Wyatt Milum received Freshman All-American honors last season. 

But in 2021 the Mountaineers allowed the most sacks of any team in the Big 12, giving up a total of 38. West Virginia also finished dead last within conference in rushing yards per game. 

While they should improve as a unit, they are a notch below Pitt – whose entire offensive line earned All-ACC honors in 2021. 

Edge: Panthers

Defensive Line

Despite losing Akheem Mesidor to Miami, the Mountaineers boast an excellent defensive front. 

Senior defensive tackle Dante Stills is a preseason All-American after deciding to return to school for an encore following his first-team All-Big 12 season last year. Sixth-year defensive end Taijh Alston — who tallied 11 tackles for loss last season — and junior defensive tackle Jordan Jefferson are fantastic compliments to Stills. 

The Mountaineers line is deep, especially after adding a pair of transfers — first-year defensive end Zeiqui Lawton and sophomore defensive tackle Mike Lockhart. But Pitt is just on a different level. 

Athlon Sports ranks Pitt’s defensive line No. 4 in the nation, which is led by junior defensive tackle Calijah Kancey and senior defensive end Haba Baldonado. Kancey is a preseason All-American and Baldonado led the ACC in pressures last season. As a unit, Pitt finished top five in both sacks and tackles for loss

Every Pitt defensive lineman who registered a sack last season returns outside of Keyshon Camp. There’s deep, and then there’s Pitt defensive line deep. 

Edge: Panthers


After last season, Pitt lost 601 combined tackles at linebacker. But senior SirVocea Dennis returns, and he is without a doubt the best either side has to offer at the position. 

Bangally Kamara — who is starting alongside Dennis — is poised for a breakout, it just remains to be seen how fast he can read the game. Notre Dame transfer Shayne Simon will also start outside of Dennis. 

Junior Lee Kpogba and sophomore Lance Dixon are expected to form the Mountaineers tandem at linebacker, and they could very well be one of the best the conference has to offer this year.

Kpogba — who started his career at Syracuse — has lofty expectations despite not playing a snap for the program up to this point. Last season he led the No. 1 scoring defense in JUCO with 84 tackles in just ten games last season. Dixon enters his fourth season hoping to pick up where he left off after registering 11 tackles against Minnesota in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. 

For both teams, the linebacker spot poses plenty of questions while also having a massive ceiling — but Dennis is the clear cut best player at the position heading into this matchup, so that’s the difference maker here. 

Edge: Panthers


Senior Charles Woods played a big part in the Mountaineers’ No. 3 passing defense within conference last season and has the talent to become the best corner in the Big 12. 

After losing five players, West Virginia opted to overhaul their back end by pursuing experienced transfers. The Mountaineers added Rashad Ajayi, Jasir Cox and Wesley McCormick, who all combine for over 1,000 snaps of experience in the back end and figure to play a lot. 

Redshirt freshman Andrew Wilson-Lamp will start opposite Woods, and junior transfer Marcis Floyd will start next to sophomore Aubrey Brooks at safety. 

While the Panthers’ secondary will be prone to giving up chunk plays, they’re bringing back an experienced duo. Senior safety Erick Hallett has started the Panthers’ last 18 games, and junior Brandon Hill has got the start next to him in 15 of those contests. The duo leads a defensive backfield that led the ACC in interceptions last season. 

A pair of seniors — AJ Woods and Marquis Williams — will get the start at corner, making it a very experienced group. Pitt gets the nod for those reasons.

Edge: Panthers