Brawl outcome could hinge on marquee backs
Long before the season began, Pitt and West Virginia were expected to dominate the Big East.
After all, the Panthers and Mountaineers arguably possessed two of the country's top running backs — Dion Lewis and Noel Devine, respectively. Their numbers were off the charts last season — a combined 3,264 rushing yards.
And most people figured those numbers could be better this season. As a result, it appeared highly likely that Friday's 103rd Backyard Brawl probably would be a showcase between two Heisman Trophy candidates.
However, as is the unpredictable nature of college football, this Big East season hasn't followed script. Instead, it's been a predictable plot as favorites and underdogs are distinguished only by the final score.
No one, though, could have predicted the uneven seasons of both Lewis and Devine. Devine has been largely victimized by nagging injuries, and Lewis' promising season soured some behind a makeshift offensive line.
Lewis, who carried the load last season, found himself splitting duty with Ray Graham. Surprisingly, Graham leads the Panthers in rushing with 837 yards — 157 more on 24 fewer carries than Lewis.
"I don't think it has anything to do with who is running the football," Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti said. "The first series, South Florida played us very vanilla and we went right down the field and ran the ball (with Lewis).
"The second series, they came out and blitzed and moved, they created some movement, so I think it's more what are defenses doing and less who is in the game actually running the ball, because they're both doing a very nice job."
Still, when the Panthers and Mountaineers face off at noon at Heinz Field, the effectiveness of both teams' game plans might hinge on how well Lewis and Devine perform with the automatic BCS bowl bid still within their teams' grasp.
Lewis seemed eager to get after West Virginia only minutes after torching the South Florida defense for 105 yards — only his second 100-yard game of the season. Devine, who has had just one 100-yard game in the past six, has a huge chip on his shoulder coming into the conference battle.
Devine isn't talking, but Lewis is optimistic that he's turned around his season.
"This is a big game for us and the running game," said Lewis, who rushed for 155 against West Virginia last season. "We are expecting a real challenge, and we'll be ready."
For the most part, the Panthers bottled up Devine in holding him to "only" 134 yards. But he caught the blitzing Pitt defense napping, particularly in the secondary, and high-stepped along the sidelines for an 88-yard touchdown late in the third quarter of the Mountaineers' 19-16 victory at Milan Puskar Stadium.
Even though Devine appears a step slower this season, Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett continues to focus on containing him.
"He convinced me last year with that 80-something yard run that we're going to have to be aware," Bennett said. "He's a very good football player.
"I know people look for things, but they have a chance at any time to be explosive. You can't just say I'm going to take this guy away. When you play a team like that, you've got to be pretty balanced yourself."