Pitt-West Virginia features Big East's top 2 backs
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP)West Virginia coach Bill Stewart likes a comeback story and he sees a darned good one in Pittsburgh's Bill Stull.
Stewart has noticed Stull's improvement since the last time No. 8 Pittsburgh (9-1, 5-0 Big East) and West Virginia (7-3, 3-2) met in the Backyard Brawl. The quarterback can help lead the Panthers to their third straight win over the Mountaineers on Friday night, something that hasn't happened since Pitt won seven straight from 1976-82.
Stull is fourth nationally in passing efficiency with 18 touchdown passes and only four interceptions and has the Panthers within reach of their first Bowl Championship Series berth in five years.
"He is a classic example of a young man that stayed the course, kept fighting and got up off the carpet," Stewart said.
Last year, Stull had to be carried off the field on a stretcher following a hard hit during an October loss to Rutgers and wasn't the same after that. In a 19-15 win over West Virginia, he threw two interceptions, fumbled and twice took Pittsburgh inside the Mountaineers' 10 without producing points.
Stull's 2008 season ended with a 7-for-24 performance for 52 yards in a 3-0 Sun Bowl loss to Oregon State. Fans even continued to boo him in the 2009 season opener, but he has been effective and can help Pittsburgh improve to 10-1 for the first time since the Dan Marino-led team in 1981.
"To be booed at home like Bill Stull was, it's good to see him stay within the framework of his upbringing," Stewart said. "I hope he doesn't get booed at Mountaineer Stadium, except for when he walks in the door. But I also hope he doesn't receive a lot of cheers. We want to win this football game."
If recent history is any indication, Stull has his work cut out for him. Running the ball has spelled the difference in the Backyard Brawl.
The series has produced 11 100-yard rushing performances in the last seven seasons. Pittsburgh's LeSean McCoy did it the past two years and Pat White and Steve Slaton for West Virginia in the two seasons before that.
West Virginia defensive lineman Chris Neild said it was difficult enough trying to get his hands around McCoy. Now he's got to deal with Pittsburgh freshman Dion Lewis, who is closing in on the Big East rushing title with 1,291 yards. His 129 yards per game are fourth best nationally.
Lewis ran for 152 yards in a 27-22 win over Notre Dame two weeks ago.
West Virginia's defense allowed one 100-yard rusher in its first seven games but has given up three straight to South Florida's B.J. Daniels (104), Louisville's Darius Ashley (164) and Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead (175).
"We've got our hands full," Neild said.
Likewise, West Virginia's Noel Devine has five 100-yard games this season and could pose problems for the Panthers. He's rushed for 1,098 yards but has been slowed the past two games with a sore left ankle.
"He's small, but very fast, so you can't let him get outside," said Pittsburgh linebacker Adam Gunn. "We've worked on that, keeping those speedster guys like Devine from getting on the perimeter. We want to limit him as much as possible in this game."
Although the game doesn't factor in the conference race, it matters a lot to unfriendly neighbors separated by 75 miles of interstate highway.
West Virginia's chances of winning the Big East ended with a 24-21 loss at No. 5 Cincinnati two weeks ago. The Mountaineers can't even end Pitt's title hopes - the conference's BCS nod goes to the winner of the Cincinnati-Pitt game at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field on Dec. 5.
Still, a loss to West Virginia might cost Pitt any chance at an at-large BCS bowl berth if the Panthers also lose to Cincinnati.
"The Backyard Brawl, that's all you need to say," said Pittsburgh defensive lineman Gus Mustakas. "We're not looking past this game to Cincinnati by any stretch of the imagination."
West Virginia is going after its first perfect home record since 1993 - Pittsburgh ruined that chance in the 2007 regular-season finale, denying the Mountaineers a berth in the BCS championship game. Pittsburgh is 19-5 since that game.
"The last time we went down there, it didn't turn out so good for them," said Pittsburgh defensive lineman Mick Williams. "But it was a party for us."