When the season began, the Backyard Brawl was looking like it might decide the conference champion. After a season of twists and turns, it's looking that way again.
We all know the winner of the game won't instantly be declared the conference champ, but all the chips are on the table. The Brawl is already a big deal, but when the conference is on the line, it means even more:
"Now, you add in the Big East race," West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said, "... it's become even a bigger rivalry."
Wannstedt said the Backyard Brawl has become "that much more exciting and that much more meaningful" when both teams are competing for the conference championship, as they are once again this fall.
As if playing your archrival isn't enough motivation, Pitt (6-4, 4-1) and West Virginia (7-3, 3-2) know that there is much more at stake than bragging rights when they play at noon Friday at Heinz Field.
Who knows how this one will turn out. It could seriously go either way. One thing I don't think we'll see is a blowout in either direction, though. The Panthers have too much at stake to let this one get out of hand and West Virginia's defense is too good.
Phil Bennett's right when he says the team with the best defense will win. But what game isn't that true?
Anyway, Pitt's D played pretty good last week. But don't tell Bennett that:
For Pitt's defense, we all know where it's going to start - the secondary. All eyes are going to be on a unit that got burned for a gaggle of pass interference plays last week. Seriously, though, if you're West Virginia, how do you not come out throwing more than usual after seeing that performance last week?
"Their blitz tendencies aren't as much as Louisville or Syracuse, but they do have a lot of talented guys on the front four that can get just as much pressure," Smith said. "I have to do a good job of getting the ball out of my hands and being sharp with my reads."
And we all know about WVU's defense - one of the best in the nation. Pitt might not score too many points, so it's going to be extra important to score touchdowns instead of settling for field goals.
With the defenses geared up, it could really come down to the running backs. Both teams boasts stars in Noel Devine and Dion Lewis/Ray Graham. ESPN.com blogger Brian Bennett takes a look at both players and details why their stats aren't as great as expected. Still, either player can take it the distance on any given play and that's a big reason why each is so important to his respective team's offense. Both offenses have struggled a bit this season and a strong running game will go a long way to winning on Friday.
Anyway, don't think Bennett is the only coordinator on Pitt's team that thinks there's room for imporvement. Frank Cignetti was happy to take some of the blame for Pitt's slow start offensively.
Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. absolved sophomore quarterback Tino Sunseri of the blame for his slow start Saturday at South Florida. "I think I played it a little too tight to the vest, didn't get him into a rhythm of completions," Cignetti said.
Pitt can't afford to start slow against West Virginia. The Mountaineers' offense may have struggled at times this year, but it's got playmakers. Noel Devine, Geno Smith...Jock Sanders. Jock Sanders. Yeah, you remember him. He put this gem out there before the season started:
"The crazy thing about it to me is Pitt's got everybody back and we've got everybody back and we beat Pitt - so those polls, to me, don't really mean anything," Sanders said.
He wasn't done. Sanders said the Mountaineers were "hands down" the best team in the conference.
"We'll show that this year," he said. "It is all about politics. For Pitt to get all those votes and we got just as much back as them, it is crazy, but, like I said before, at the end of the year after we play them, they'll regret it. They'll regret it all."
I didn't have a problem with it and I'd even go as far as to say he made a really good point. And guess what? Much as it might be painful to say, this season showed he was right - at least so far. Pitt stumbled and bumbled through the season. Even when the Panthers had a chance to lay a claim as the conference champ at UConn, they couldn't win. Pitt wins that game and they're in much better shape, having to only need to win one of its final two games.
So 'who you got?' I don't know. I'm not going to make a pick for this one. There's no way I can look at it objectively. I think both teams can win, but too close to call for me. I'm just going to sit back and enjoy this one. Well, at least if Pitt wins.
And, oh yeah, how's this for a 2007 flashback...WVU is already worried about kicking conditions. Sounds about right.