Backyard Brawl kickers prepare for tough turf
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Heinz Field long has been known as one of the toughest stadiums for kickers to perform.
When Pitt and West Virginia face off in the Backyard Brawl on Friday, it might be even more difficult. The two teams expect to play on what Mountaineers' kicker Tyler Bitancurt called this week "horrendous" turf.
"I've played on some bad fields before, but I expect this to be one of the worst if NFL teams are complaining about it," Bitancurt said.
The conditions of the natural turf have caused the NFL's Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots to complain. While the sod will be replaced, it won't happen prior to the Brawl: The Steelers will wait until after this weekend's slate of games, which include Pitt-West Virginia and four WPIAL championship contests.
The turf is expected to get worse before it gets better, too, with rain and snow in the forecast for Thursday and Friday.
"I don't talk about it; Oakland talked about it. That's what I told the team," West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said. "When you play on a wet field, loose turf, what do you have to do• ... You just have to narrow your base. You can't overstride."
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said the field surface will not have a significant impact on either team.
"Both teams have to play on it, and you deal with it," he said.
What usually impacts the outcome, though, is the kicking game, no matter the venue. The last three meetings have come down to special teams plays or mistakes. Last year, Bitancurt made a 43-yard field goal as time expired to beat Pitt, 19-16. In the 2008 meeting, WVU botched an extra point and was forced to go for a touchdown instead of attempting a field goal on its last drive, which was unsuccessful in a 19-15 loss. In 2007, then-WVU kicker Pat McAfee missed two field goals in a 13-9 loss that shoved the Mountaineers out of the national championship picture.
"The kicking game will be a major factor. It has been in all of the last three games," Wannstedt said. "Two years ago, T.J. Porter had his best punt return of the year to set us up for our final score. Last year, they kicked a field goal with no time. (Three years ago), we strip them on a kickoff return. So there's been scenarios where the kicking game has been a factor."
Bitancurt and Pitt kicker/punter Dan Hutchins have had up-and-down seasons in 2010.
After making nearly 80 percent of his field goals last season, Hutchins has converted 71.4 percent this year. He is 1 of 5 from beyond 40 yards. He has made 9-of-12 field-goal attempts at Heinz Field this year after converting 14-of-15 attempts there last season.
"I believe that I am able to kick those kicks; it's just unfortunate that I have missed a few of those kicks, multiple kicks like that," Hutchins said. "I'm attacking it. I'm very positive about it. I can't look in the past."
Bitancurt made 87 percent of his field-goal attempts in 2009, but that number has dropped to 72 percent in his sophomore season. In addition, he has struggled on natural grass. Half of Bitancurt's field-goal misses have come on grass, along with his lone extra-point miss.
To deal with the potential field issues, Bitancurt has worked on shortening his stride to eliminate the chance of slipping. This week, he will practice on WVU's natural grass practice field instead of the artificial turf of Mountaineer Field.
Bitancurt said Monday he hoped the practice field would begin to wear similarly to Heinz Field's turf, so he could practice on a comparable surface before gameday.
"I would prefer to kick on the worst possible ground this week to try to prepare," Bitancurt said.
Hutchins said he has learned to overcome the turf issues at Heinz Field.
"There's been a lot of games played on it. It's a unique type of grass. It gets ripped up so much. But that's just how it is," he said. "For me, to go out there and kick, we've always got to make sure I've got a flat spot, pat it down, et cetera. It should be good. We'll see what happens."
Getting their kicks
Heinz Field and its oft-criticized playing surface will host its fifth Backyard Brawl on Friday. Here's how the Pitt and West Virginia kickers have fared in the four previous meetings at Heinz:
2008: Pitt 19, West Virginia 15
Pitt: Conor Lee — 0-1 (missed 40)
WVU: Pat McAfee — 3-3 (made 20, 26, 40)
2006: West Virginia 45, Pitt 27
Pitt: Conor Lee — 2-2 (made 43, 39)
WVU: Pat McAfee — 1-1 (made 51)
2004 Pitt 16, West Virginia 13
Pitt: Josh Cummings — 3-4 (made 37, 35, 20; missed 35)
WVU: Brad Cooper — 1-3 (made 26; missed 44, 31)
WVU: Andy Good — 1-1 (made 31)
2002: West Virginia 24, Pitt 17
Pitt: David Abdul — 1-1 (made 33)
WVU: Todd James — 1-1 (made 43)
Source: Tribune-Review research