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Panthers know all about West Virginia's home field advantage

| Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2001

When Bryan Knight thinks of West Virginia, the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River do not pop into his head. Nor does he get the sudden urge to sing a few verses of John Denver's signature hit, "Country Roads."

The Pitt senior defensive end can only conjure images of those rowdy Mountaineers fans in Morgantown, where the Panthers (4-5) face West Virginia (3-7) at noon Saturday.

It is the 94th edition of the annual Backyard Brawl and the game has postseason implications for Pitt, which needs a victory to keep its bowl hopes alive. The Panthers must win this weekend and the following Saturday against Alabama-Birmingham to remain in the postseason hunt.

West Virginia, on the other hand, is out of the bowl picture and can only play the role of spoiler - just as it did in 1999 when it knocked Pitt off in the regular-season finale and knocked the Panthers out of bowl contention.

That 52-21 defeat was the product of Pitt facing a fired up West Virginia team in front of its fired up fan following in Morgantown. Knight can still hear the jeers.

"They're crazy," Knight said Monday afternoon. "It's going to be a little different atmosphere there than what we've played in front of (this season). We have to be focused. ... We can't let those fans bother us."

Easier said than done.

"The West Virginia fans are a little bit louder than others," Knight said. "The seats are a little bit closer and you can really hear them. I guess that's what you want your home team to do. If I was West Virginia, I'd want my fans to do the same thing. I'm not putting their fans down or anything, but they can be annoying. But the good teams focus and execute."

But even good teams and good players have a hard time ignoring the chiding they receive from the loyalists at Mountaineer Field. The WVU partisans tend to be a creative bunch who know how to push the right buttons.

Knight, a fifth-year senior, has been through it twice, once during his redshirt freshman season in 1997 (a 41-38 Pitt victory in triple overtime that led to a bowl berth) and once during the loss in 1999.

He acknowledged that he had a hard time turning his back on them.

"You have fans out there who start picking on certain players," Knight said. "Whether it's because of the way the player's dressed or his last name on the back of his jersey. It's different things like that. At some point in the game it can be funny, especially if we're winning. But if we're not, we just have to stay focused and do what we can to come back and win the game.

"But they can get you going and they want to cause a reaction. Even if somebody blurted out something to me right now (at the UPMC Sports Complex), I'd be tempted to turn around. We just have to remember to keep focused on the bullseye, not them."

All three of West Virginia's victories have come at home this season and the average attendance has been 49,106 - out of a possible 63,500 at Mountaineer Field. The wins, however, came against two Mid-American Conference teams in Ohio University (20-3) and Kent State (34-14) and against Big East doormat Rutgers (80-7).

The Mountaineers also absorbed home losses to Virginia Tech (35-0) in Week 5 and to conference bottom-feeder Temple (17-14) last Saturday. That gives them a 3-2 record on their home turf, which isn't exactly dominating.

Pitt coach Walt Harris might have put it best when he said, "I don't know what to expect from their crowd. We're not playing the crowd, we're playing the West Virginia football team."

Harris' job is to drive that point home to his players.

"We already understand that," Knight said. "And we won't let them get to us. We way too much riding on this one."

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