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Pitt plays it safe in preparation of West Virginia

| Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2003

Pitt coach Walt Harris is shutting the doors and locking them tightly this week, as he prepares for a Saturday night showdown against West Virginia in Morgantown, W.Va.

How big is this game to Harris• Consider this is the first time in his seven-year tenure that he's closed the doors for an entire week to the media. He wants to prevent any possibility of a leak of pregame preparations to West Virginia, which held on for a 24-17 decision over Pitt in 2002 at Heinz Field.

Harris even made it a point to have a huge sign emblazoned across the Pitt weight room all season with the date, 11-15-03, in bold print, indicating when this meeting with the Mountaineers would take place.

This is the Backyard Brawl on steroids, a huge matchup that could determine the Big East Conference champion and the accompanying BCS berth that goes along with it. The 16th-ranked Panthers (7-2, 4-0) enter as the league leader, while the Mountaineers (5-4, 3-1) hold the second spot with Miami.

"This is what you play for," fullback Lousaka Polite said.

Harris is taking no chances. When asked why he is closing practices, he was quick with a response.

"It's a real big game to us," he said. "Our guys seem to focus better when there are not a lot of distractions. We tried to reduce the number of things we have to focus on (outside) as a staff for our players, and it seems like this is helpful. .... We have to keep our eye on the bull's-eye."

Somebody then asked Harris about the sign hanging in the locker room. The coach turned to media relations director E.J. Borghetti and asked how reporters could have seen it. Borghetti simply said, "through the window."

"First of all, they're our biggest rival," Harris said, explaining the sign. "It's an exciting game for both universities to play in the Backyard Brawl. This will be my seventh, and I have some vivid memories, of all-time highs and all-time lows. Last year, was an all-time low."

Pitt entered the 2002 game with a 5-1 record in the conference and with a chance to earn a berth in the Gator Bowl, but the Panthers had all of the game's four turnovers and dropped a 24-17 decision in front of a record crowd of 66,731 at Heinz Field.

"It was a significant game for our season, and we didn't get the job done," said Harris, who is 3-3 against West Virginia and 1-1 against third-year coach Rich Rodriguez "That's why we constantly remind our football players about the importance of that date (Nov. 15) and this game."

Both teams enter riding four-game winning streaks, each defeating Rutgers, Boston College and Virginia Tech along the way. The Panthers are coming off a last-minute, 31-28, victory over then-No. 5 Virginia Tech, which lost to West Virginia, 28-7, in Morgantown on Oct. 22, and the Mountaineers are coming off a 35-28 win at Boston College.

Pitt senior cornerback William "Tutu" Ferguson has been involved in enough of these brawls to know they have far more implications than L's and W's.

"You have to look beyond football," said Ferguson, who broke up a pass on fourth-and-4 on Saturday that set the Panthers up for their game-winning, 70-yard scoring drive against Tech. "We're competing against West Virginia for the best players in this area all the time. This game has deep meaning -- we want to win the Big East. We have to keep the program strong year in and year out."

Ferguson laughed when it was suggested that Harris might be more revved up about this game than most.

"You guys don't see him," Ferguson said. "He's a fiery coach. ... Our coach wants to win this like everybody else. He's our leader. We feed off of him. We have to win this game."

Harris is doing all he can to make it possible.

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