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Pitt-WVU winner can collect conference spoils

| Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010

When Dave Wannstedt played at Pitt in the early 1970s, the Backyard Brawl was just that: an annual rivalry between schools separated by 70-odd miles and a state line.

"That," Wannstedt said, "was really the force behind the rivalry."

The force has only intensified since the schools became members of the same football conference, one that is usually for their taking.

"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.

"It's always a test when you play West Virginia because it's a rivalry game and everything's on the line," Pinkston said. "It's a big game."

How big?

Try first place in the Big East Conference. The league's automatic BCS bowl berth. And then there are the consequences of losing. These Panthers and Mountaineers are most familiar with the latter, as they have served as spoilers in each other's seasons the past three years:

» In 2007, Pitt was a 28 1/2-point underdog when it beat No. 2 West Virginia, 13-9, in Morgantown to end the Mountaineers' plans of playing for the BCS national championship.

» In 2008, West Virginia was in second place in Big East standings when Pitt pulled a fourth-quarter comeback for a 19-15 victory. A week later, the Panthers clinched second place and secured a berth in the Sun Bowl while the Mountaineers went to the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

» Last year, Pitt's 19-16 loss at West Virginia didn't prevent the Panthers from playing for the Big East title but, coupled with a loss to Cincinnati in the finale, pushed them back to third place and the Meineke Car Care Bowl while the Mountaineers played in the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day.

"It was definitely different last year," Wannstedt said. "A week later was really the meaningful game. We were coming off a big win against Notre Dame at home, and West Virginia was kind of sandwiched in between there.

"You'd really like this to be the last game of the year, but the way the scheduling falls and wanting to play it on Thanksgiving weekend, that's not possible. You'd like to end with your rivalry game, but that's not the case."

With a win over West Virginia, Pitt can clinch a share of the Big East title. The Panthers also need to beat Cincinnati in the season finale to win the conference crown outright, which they will need because their loss at Connecticut could cost them if it comes to a tiebreaker with the Huskies.

"It's always a test when you play West Virginia because it's a rivalry game and everything's on the line," Pinkston said. "It's a big game."

West Virginia holds head-to-head tiebreakers with Cincinnati and South Florida, so the Mountaineers can clinch a share of the Big East title by winning their final two games or with a win over the Panthers, coupled with a Pitt loss at Cincinnati and Connecticut losing one of its final two games. West Virginia also has an outside shot of winning the conference outright.

"We're trying to win the Big East, and Pitt's definitely in the way," West Virginia linebacker J.T. Thomas said. "We want to win the Big East and we know if we beat Pitt, it will go a long way to doing that. This is a must-win game for us, just like the previous two were."

What enhances the Backyard Brawl is the familiarity, from the coaches who crossed paths on the recruiting trail to the players who were opponents in high school and meet again in college.

"It's a chance to play backyard football with those guys that you grew up with," said West Virginia linebacker Anthony Leonard, a McKeesport graduate. "As much love as we've got for each other, once the whistle blows a lot is going to be at stake. I can't wait."

Wannstedt's take

From Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt's weekly news conference

On Pitt junior cornerback Antwuan Reed overcoming four pass-interference penalties to make a late fourth-quarter interception:

"The thing I liked about Antwuan: that could have been, 'get in the car and just drive home back to Johnstown' -- the way that thing went. The thing that I give him credit for is it was such a high-intensity game, particularly at the end, for him to keep fighting through it ... and then he gets the interception at the end to end it."

On West Virginia, which leads the Big East and ranks fourth nationally in total defense (245.10 yards a game), rushing defense (88 yards a game) and scoring defense:

"You look at the statistics, and they're playing as good on defense as anyone in the nation. Not just in one category. You look at their scoring defense, and they're allowing just (12.9) points a game. That's impressive. When you look at their rushing defense, red-zone, third-down, they are playing very well as a unit, they're not giving up very many big plays and they've got some experience that have been in this system for a couple years, which I think helps them."

On what makes West Virginia's 3-5-3 stack defense so dangerous:

"They're sacking the passer. They've got the top guy (Keith Tandy) with interception numbers in our conference and (fourth) in the country. They're very disciplined, as reckless as they play. They've got good athletes and they know the system -- it's nothing new for it -- and they play within the system and they don't make many mistakes."

On the last three Backyard Brawls being games in which neither school scored 20 points, and the outcome was decided by four points or less:

"Whether it's a low-scoring game, I don't even go there because both offenses have enough explosive players that the minute you start thinking that or saying that, it goes the other way. It will just be a game where every play will count for four quarters."

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