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Backyard Brawl Preview: Breaking Down Pitt Vs. West Virginia

This week really hasn't allowed for much reflection for me personally regarding the Brawl. With a short work week, getting ready to travel, and other real-life related stuff, it's been a bit hectic.

But, man, can't put this game off forever, so here goes.

I'll be honest - I don't expect Pitt to win this game. Capable? Yes. But it's really hard to go out on a limb and say I expect Pitt to win. That said, it's fair to say I wouldn't be even a bit surprised if Pitt went all 2007 on the Mountaineers. Anything can happen in a one game scenario and to say Pitt is overmatched in this game is probably a bit off-base.

For starters, this isn't going to be the last Backyard Brawl. It means too much to the schools and even if it's not an annual game (see my thoughts on it here), it definitely becomes a semi-annual game in my opinion.

So let's face it - the key to any success Pitt has on offense is going to depend on if we see good Tino or bad Tino. West Virginia knows Sunseri isn't a star - everyone knows that. Still, they're focused on him:

West Virginia defensive end Bruce Irvin said controlling Pitt's offense can be as simple as disrupting quarterback Tino Sunseri.

"Hassle him as much as we can," Irvin said, when asked the key to stopping the Panthers.

Irvin said film review of Pitt's season indicates the Panthers have turned to Sunseri, who has played with more decisiveness while leading Pitt to a 2-1 record since running back Ray Graham went out with season-ending knee injury.

"I think since Ray Graham went down, they rely on Tino to make plays with his legs and his arms," said Irvin, taking a break from preparations for Friday's Backyard Brawl in Morgantown, W.Va. "He's had his ups and down like any player would. But he's good enough to win five games, and they're still in the Big East hunt."

That's just the thing - Pitt doesn't need Sunseri to be a star. Playing smart and keeping them in the game will suffice. Todd Graham said Tino played maybe his best game in terms of being decisive last week against Louisville. In that game, Sunseri had an extremely modest 196 yards. Bottom line is that Sunseri doesn't need to come out and throw for 400 yards as he did against UConn for Pitt to win.

So much of that goes into protecting him, though, and Pitt is hoping to get offensive lineman Lucas Nix back for this one. The offensive line is finally starting to see some stability according to Graham:

If Pitt is going to succeed with games at WVU and at home against Syracuse, it is going to have to continue to get effective work from its patchwork offensive line that has just started playing well together.

"We've now had a few weeks with the same group of guys," said Graham after Louisville. "I thought we blocked really well, came off the football. Repetition in the lineup helps."


Maybe it's just me, but I'll bet Graham is more than willing to sacrifice a bit of that stability in order to get his best lineman back ... just a hunch.

On West Virginia's side of the ball, no one really knows what to expect from their running game.

I brought this up in the Q&A with The Smoking Musket, but it's hard to know who to prepare for. That's because the Mountaineers will rely on a multi-pronged effort to try to get the job done. The guy everyone's heard of? Dustin Garrison:

Still, Pitt coach Todd Graham said his defense must keep an eye on West Virginia freshman running back Dustin Garrison, who is seventh in the Big East averaging 60 yards per game.

"I think he is going to be a special back," Graham said. "He runs the screens extremely well. He's a slasher and a tough runner."

Garrison lit up Bowling Green to the tune of nearly 300 yards, but still didn't win the full-time job this season. Since that incredible effort, he's not even had 20 attempts in a single game. That's because there's Shawne Alston, Andrew Buie, and Vernard Roberts, who have also seen their fair share of carries.

Then there's special teams. Pitt needs to look out for Tavon Austin and make sure he doesn't turn into Mardy Gilyard. I'd rather not kick to him in most situations, but if they do, they've got to know they're playing with fire to some degree. Graham knows he's dangerous:

"Austin's ability to return kicks and punts is phenomenal," Graham the coach said.

Austin is ranked No. 7 in Division I-A in punt returns (14.8 yards per return) and No. 31 in kickoff returns (25.19). He has a career kickoff return average of 23.9 yards.

He can make tacklers miss and change a game with one big play, Graham said.

"They are as good as there is in the country with Austin as a kickoff returner and a punt returner," Graham said. "They have also had other guys back there. They have really good skill players in their return game. They get great field position. They start on their 40-plus yard line a lot.

"Our coverage teams have to do a great job, there is no question about it. That is going to be big in the game. That is part of those explosive plays."

Oh yeah - then there are the coaches. They, um, don't like each other, as we've chronicled before. The Trib also took a look at the relationship this week and despite the fact that Graham and Holgorsen are doing their best Bert and Ernie buddy-buddy routine, look, they hate each other. You know it, I know it, and it's pretty obvious. And that's fine - this is the Brawl, after all.

So how's this one going to turn out? Is it going to be a shootout as some are projecting? I don't think so, to be honest. That's likely not the popular opinion, and both teams have shown an ability to score points this year. Further, West Virginia has given up points in bunches this year, giving up more than 30 points to five different teams this year - Maryland, LSU, Syracuse, Rutgers, and Louisville. But for some reason, I'm thinking this is a fairly low score - maybe a total of about 45 points.

Getting back to WVU, though - those high offensive outputs by some pretty mediocre offenses is a big reason Pitt fans should be encouraged. West Virginia is hardly the defensive squad they've been in the past. I'm not so sure Pitt can win a shootout against the Mountaineers, but I do think the Panthers can move the ball in this game.

And when in doubt, throw in the Wild Card - Pistol Pete:

"Pete Gonzalez is going to be our honorary captain. Everybody remembers his 1997 comeback win there in overtime. We have Pete going down there with us and we are excited about that. I can’t tell you what an honor and a privilege it is for me to lead this group of guys. We’ve had a tremendous two weeks of practice, with some extra days to get ready.
Unfortunately, Pitt's going to need more than that. The good news, though? They're more than capable of pulling off an upset.

I know all about Graham's penchant for scoring points, but he's shown by slowing down the offense lately that he's willing to adjust. My plea to Graham this week is simple: Ball control. Pitt's offense doesn't need to turn into the reincarnation of Dave Wannstedt's, but the team will be better served by keeping the Mountaineers' offense off the field.

Do that and I think Pitt has a real shot to win.