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Posted: Wednesday November 25, 2009 1:24PM; Updated: Thursday November 26, 2009 12:14AM
Cory McCartney
Cory McCartney>INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Game of the Week: Pitt at W. Va.

Story Highlights

Classic 2007 game changed momentum in Backyard Brawl rivalry

Pittsburgh's conventional offense has been causing problems for foes

West Virginia's offense was once proficient, but has struggled of late

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Pitt star freshman running back Dion Lewis ranks fourth in the nation in rushing (129.1 yards per game).
Getty Images

Two years ago in Morgantown, West Virginia entered the Backyard Brawl on the cusp of a spot in the national championship game. Pitt was just trying to salvage its season.

As they return to Mountaineer Field for the 102nd edition of the storied rivalry on Friday, that 2007 meeting appears to be a turning point, or sorts, for both programs.

Since Pitt's 13-9 win over No. 2 West Virginia, the Panthers are 19-5 and will play fifth-ranked Cincinnati on Dec. 5 for the Big East title.

"I think that win, when you look back on it, it gave us life," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "That would be the way that I would classify it."

Meanwhile, the Mountaineers haven't been the same since that loss, which knocked them out of the BCS title race. Coach Rich Rodriguez would leave a few days later and while Bill Stewart did lead them to a Fiesta Bowl win as interim coach, West Virginia has appeared in just five of the past 23 AP Top 25 polls since he took over the reins for good.

As Pitt seeks its third straight win in the Brawl, Panthers fans seem almost apathetic about the game, with the school unable to sell its allotment of tickets. But while the series has shifted Pitt's way, Wannstedt says the rivalry remains as bitter as ever. "Throw the records out," he said. "Show up. You better be ready to play," he said.

Three And Out

1. The Brawl may not have Big East title race implications, but it should help to shape its postseason picture. Regardless of what happens against West Virginia, Pitt is playing for a spot in a BCS game next week vs. Cincinnati. With a win over West Virginia, the Panthers could conceivably finish 10-2 and still be an attractive option for an at-large berth, which would give the maligned Big East two teams in major bowl games for the first time.

But if Pitt gets caught looking ahead to next week's Cincinnati showdown, the biggest game of the new-look Big East will be a make-or-break game for the Panthers. Losses to WVU and the Bearcats would drop Pitt to 9-3, which won't likely earn it a BCS berth. Under that scenario, it could also elevate the Mountaineers to second in the conference and a spot in the Gator Bowl (should it not select Notre Dame), instead of playing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl for the second straight year, as they're currently projected.

2. Being dinosaurs offensively is serving No. 8 Pitt quite well. While the rest of the nation joins the spread and read-option revolutions, Wannstedt's stubbornness has made what was once conventional actually unconventional.

"We're definitely in the minority with what we are doing here," Wannstedt said.

In fact, outside of No. 2 Alabama, Pitt is the only team in the top 10 that uses a pro-style attack that's predicated by a power running game. The Panthers, who rank second in the Big East in total offense, use fullback Hendry Hynoski as a throwback blocking back to pave the way for freshman Dion Lewis, the nation's fourth leading rusher (129.1 yards per game). They've helped to open the passing lanes for senior quarterback Bill Stull, who is fourth in pass efficiency (159.3 rating).

Wannstedt says he's avoided the spread craze because "I know you can be successful doing what we do." It gives the Panthers a look that defenses rarely see, making it as difficult to prepare for as Georgia Tech's spread-option. The only other Big East team that runs an offense similar to Pitt's is UConn, which piled up 501 yards on West Virginia, the most it has given up all season.

3. Just how effective will West Virginia's offense be vs. dominant Pitt D? The Mountaineers have struggled of late, averaging 21.8 points the past five games after scoring 33.4 the first five; banged-up Noel Devine hasn't run more than 100 yards in a month; and quarterback Jarrett Brown has one 200-yard game in that span.

Those aren't the best streaks to be on against a Panthers defense that leads the nation with 40 sacks and is 11th in tackles for loss. What makes Pitt so impressive is it's done it by rarely adding additional rushers to its front four, led by ends Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard.

"You can not spend a lot of time worrying about the two defensive ends," Stewart said. "If you do that, it will take you right out of your game plan."

Though trying to keep Romeus and Sheard may be the biggest key to the game. Stewart has alluded to using a two-tight end formation, which could help to keep pressure off Brown and allow Devine, who is expected to be close to full speed, to break loose. If they can't stop Pitt's ends, West Virginia could struggle to find its rhythm yet again.

Inside The Scouting Report

How do teams prepare for Stull, Lewis and the Pitt offense? I spoke to Buffalo defensive coordinator Fred Reed, who has faced the Panthers the last two seasons. Here's what he had to say:

"Obviously the offensive line is doing a good job, but I think one of the biggest differences [from last season] is the quarterback [Stull]. He's playing really well in terms of showing some real good field general-ship, getting them in and out of different things ... obviously the running game has helped him out and he has some solid receivers, but there's no question that he's playing with the calmness of a senior and doing a solid job in terms of leadership and delivering the ball in some critical situations.

"I think you have to make [Stull] beat you. If you can do something as far as slowing their run game with Lewis ... you have to make sure you don't give up explosive runs and make them one-dimensional. If you can make them one-dimensional and make the quarterback have to throw the ball numerous times to beat you, I think it takes away who they are and what they're about offensively and it puts a lot of pressure on him.

 
 

"They use multiple personal groupings. They use the two-back system as well as they'll use the multiple tight end system. The one thing that I think is the X-factor with them is Dorin Dickerson, their tight end/H-back guy. He's outstanding. He's hard to match up with and he's an excellent blocker and also an excellent route-runner. He's dangerous in the passing game and I think he's one of the biggest keys to Stull, because he's almost like a security blanket in some senses because I think they can get him the ball if he's matched up with a linebacker or a safety."

The Pick

Pitt 27, West Virginia 17. If there's been one major change with these Panthers, it's the mindset; they have avoided the inexplicable losses and mistakes that have defined the Wannstedt era. That will continue as Pitt takes advantage of a West Virginia defense giving up 202 yards per game on the ground the last three weeks to make it three straight in the rivalry and set up a monumental game against Cincinnati.

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