Defense will be key in Brawl

Ralph N. Paulk
| Friday, Nov. 26, 2010

The Backyard Brawl is about attitude. If you believe, then you can win.

Typically, the team with the best defense survives this century-old series, particularly in recent years. The last three games have been decided by a combined 11 points -- including West Virginia's come-from-behind, 19-16 win last season.

The Mountaineers were convinced they could short-circuit Pitt's explosive offense. Jon Baldwin pulled in a 50-yard scoring pass and Dion Lewis ground out 155 yards, but the Panthers didn't do much of anything in between.

On the other hand, the Panthers were convinced tailback Noel Devine couldn't crack their supposedly impregnable defense. Yet, he busted loose for an 88-yard touchdown before being caged.

Certainly, big plays are often inevitable in rivalry games. And it's likely to be the case during the 103rd Backyard Brawl on Friday at Heinz Field.

"I feel like whatever defense or however the defense plays will determine the outcome for both teams, because it's going to be tough for them to score on us and tough for us to score on them," West Virginia linebacker Anthony Leonard said. "The whole game is going to be based off the field position that the defense sets up for the offense."

It's that simple, really.

With the exception of a few changes, the game films look relatively the same as they did a year ago for both teams. No matter how the tape is spliced, Pitt defensive coordinator Bill Bennett agrees with Leonard.

"The team that plays the best defense on Friday will win," Bennett said. "That's the challenge. That's the bottom line."

On paper, the bottom line favors the Mountaineers. They are ranked first in the Big East both total defense (245.1 yards per game) and scoring defense (12.9 points), while the Panthers are fourth in both categories (302 yards/19.2 points).

"We want to go out and execute our game plan as much as possible," said West Virginia linebacker J.T. Thomas. "We want to try to stop the run first and put them in passing situations. Other than that, we don't want to change too much."

The Mountaineers are sometimes difficult to figure. They brawled with fifth-ranked LSU before falling 20-14, but the defense couldn't make a momentum-shifting play to spare West Virginia costly upset losses to Syracuse and Connecticut.

Still, the Mountaineers have one of the country's best defensive units.

"They're very well-coached, very good personnel, got an excellent front seven, an athletic back end, they cover a lot of ground," Pitt defensive coordinator Frank Cignetti said of the Mountaineers' defense. "They play hard. They play relentless."

The Panthers, too, aren't without playmakers - save defensive end Greg Romeus, who missed all but two games due to injuries. But no one could make a play when it matter against Connecticut in the Panthers' only conference defeat; a game that would have assured them at least a share of the Big East crown.

Bennett knows the Panthers most play better to avenge last year's disheartening setback to West Virginia.

"If you watch the game (South Florida last week), we missed sacks and we missed way too many tackles," Bennett said. "We were getting there -- we played fast."

If both defenses plays as they're capable, this key Big East battle could again come down to one final kick, as it did a year ago with West Virginia placekicker Tyler Bitancurt splitting the uprights as time expired at Milan Puskar Stadium.

Additional Information:

West Virginia at Pitt

Noon today, Heinz Field

TV/radio: WTAE-4, WATM-23/WVAQ-FM (101.9), Mountaineer Sports Network, KDKA-FM (93.7), WQTW-AM (1570), Pitt Radio Network

Favorite: Pitt by 3

Records: Pitt 6-4, 4-1 Big East; West Virginia 7-3, 3-2

Series: Pitt leads, 61-38-2

Last meeting: 2009, West Virginia, 19-16

Outlook: Pittsburgh can clinch a share of the Big East title with a win over rival West Virginia. The Mountaineers can keep their title hopes alive with a road win. Heading into the season, the story line for the 103rd 'Backyard Brawl' centered on the teams' stud running backs: West Virginia's Noel Devine and Pitt's Dion Lewis. As the season unfolded, the teams focused on defense, and they have two of the best in the country. West Virginia's defense ranks fourth nationally, and Pitt's is 12th in total yards allowed. The Mountaineers' 3-3-5 defense will try to stall Pitt's tandem of running backs -- Lewis and Ray Graham -- and force the Panthers into passing situations. West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said sophomore running back Shawne Alston could see more action; his power running style could be more successful in expected sloppy conditions. The Mountaineers are coming off their first Big East road win of the season -- 17-10 at Louisville. The Panthers have won four of five. Each of the past three games between the rivals came down to special-teams play. Pitt kicker/punter Dan Hutchins and West Virginia kicker Tyler Bitancurt could play significant roles.

-- Tony Dobies

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