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Power football on the menu for Backyard Brawl

| Friday, Nov. 27, 2009

At times, the Backyard Brawl has been anything but a slugfest.

During the previous 17 seasons, only three times have both Pitt and West Virginia scored less than 20 points in a game — including three of the past five seasons. For the most part, the Mountaineers have rolled up the points, scoring more than 40 points eight times.

The eighth-ranked Panthers (9-1, 5-0) enter tonight's 102nd meeting boasting the top-ranked defense in the Big East.

This time, at Milan Puskar Stadium, expect a brawl. Maybe.

The unranked Mountaineers (7-3, 3-2) are feeling anxious about defending a Pitt offense that leads the conference in several key categories — including rushing, third-down conversions and red-zone offense. Tailback Dion Lewis (129.1) leads the Big East in rushing, and quarterback Bill Stull has the top-rated passing efficiency (159.37).

The Panthers, looking to extend their win streak to seven, have averaged 33.8 points with a pro-style offense that was once considered passe in college football.

Yet Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti haven't been tempted to deploy the spread offense, which West Virginia sometimes executed flawlessly in averaging 37 points during a 9-game Backyard Brawl stretch from 1998-2006.

"We're in the minority with what we are doing here," Wannstedt said. "There are very few college teams using a fullback like we use him.

"I believe in what we do. We recruit players to fit our system. We're going to go out and recruit great running backs, great receivers, great tight ends and quarterbacks who can throw the ball."

Wannstedt credits his offense for helping the Panthers' defense, which leads the nation with 40 sacks.

"Our defense has to be tough," Wannstedt said. "Going against our offense all training camp and in spring practice, it's not finesse."

The West Virginia defense will use only three linemen, something the Pitt offense seldom encounters. The defensive front will try to funnel Lewis and fellow running back Ray Graham between the tackles, putting pressure on the linebackers and safeties, particularly free safety Robert Sands, to prevent big plays in the running game.

"Their defensive scheme is different from anyone else's we have seen," Wannstedt said. "Rrecognition for our offensive players will be as important as anything. Then you have to find a way to block them."

The Mountaineers' linebackers — Pat Lazear, Reed Williams and J.T. Thomas — must bottle up Lewis. If not, they will leave themselves vulnerable to a Pitt passing game that tormented Notre Dame two weeks ago during a 27-22 victory at Heinz Field.

"They have very fast linebackers who move well laterally," said Pitt tight end Nate Byham. "Their safeties play at the linebacker level. We're going up against a very athletic defense that tries to confuse the offense by moving things around.

"We've been successful against this defense in the past, and there's not much difference in what they've been doing this year. It's more about knowing your assignments."

Additional Information:

Backyard Brawl Game Day

No. 8 Pitt vs. West Virginia

Today, 7 p.m. • Milan Puskar Stadium, Morgantown, W.Va.


Favorite: Pick'em

Records: Pitt 9-1, 5-0 Big East; West Virginia 7-3, 3-2

Last meeting: Pitt won, 19-15, last season at Heinz Field and leads the all-time series, 61-37-3.

Outlook: The Panthers, vying for their seventh consecutive win, have put together their best 10-game start since 1982. Pitt, coming off of its second bye week of the season, is ninth in the BCS poll and is looking to win the Backyard Brawl for the third consecutive year since winning seven straight from 1976-82. The visiting team has won 13 of the past 22 games. The Mountaineers are bowl eligible for the eighth consecutive year, which is best among Big East teams. They have compiled a 62-2 record when scoring 30 or more points since 2000.

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