Backyard Brawl now all about the defenses
Pat White and Steve Slaton of West Virginia couldn't prevent a seismic shift in the Backyard Brawl. Neither could LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis of Pittsburgh.
During the 103-season history of a rivalry that divides households and defines seasons, West Virginia-Pitt games have featured scores such as 63-48, 36-35, 47-41, 52-31 and 41-38. From 1998-2003, West Virginia scored 52 points three times while winning.
Two rivals located 70 miles of mountainous roads apart shifted back into long-standing character, seemingly determined to beat the other at its own game.
It's a series that's always been about rugged teams and rugged players - Mike Ditka and Sam Huff are textbook examples - with Friday's game figuring to be another low-scoring, tough-'em-out struggle in which the first team to blink loses.
During an era when offenses increasingly rule in college football, defense dominates the Backyard Brawl. Even with all the offensive stars that have dotted each team's lineup, the winning team hasn't scored more than 19 points in any of the last three games and four of the last six.
''This is the best game of the year,'' Pitt tackle Jason Pinkston said. ''It's West Virginia.''
Three years ago, Pitt put West Virginia out of the national title game with a 13-9 victory that ranks as the rivalry's upset for the ages. Last season, West Virginia put then-No. 8 Pitt out of the top 10 with a last-second, 19-16 decision in Morgantown. Coupled with Pitt's 45-44 loss to unbeaten Cincinnati a week later, the West Virginia defeat doomed the Panthers to a lower-tier bowl.
Friday's game at Heinz Field should be no different, especially now that Thursday's heavy rain could make an already slippery and sandy grass field even worse.
West Virginia (7-3, 3-2 in Big East) owns the conference's best rushing defense, best passing defense and a defense that hasn't allowed an opponent more than 21 points. Pitt (6-4, 4-1) gave up only 3 points to Syracuse, 10 to South Florida, and 14 to Syracuse.
''Let's face it, it's cut and dried,'' Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said. ''The team that plays the best defense on Friday will win. Period. So that's the challenge and the bottom line.''
This Backyard Brawl is a bit of a rarity, with neither team ranked in the Top 25. But since the Big East champion automatically earns a BCS bowl invitation, this game takes on more importance than many others on a holiday weekend loaded with big games.
For Pitt, the route to the Fiesta Bowl is clearly marked: beat West Virginia and Cincinnati (4-6, 2-3) on Dec. 4, and the Big East title that eluded them the last two seasons is theirs.
''The last couple of years, we had a situation where we had it (the title) and lost it right before our eyes,'' defensive end Jabaal Sheard said. ''I hurt from that and I refuse to let that happen again.''
West Virginia, which lost earlier to Connecticut and Syracuse, must beat the Panthers for the second successive season, then defeat Rutgers (4-6, 1-4) on Dec. 4 and hope Connecticut (6-4, 3-2) loses to either Cincinnati or South Florida (6-4, 3-3). UConn owns the tiebreaker based on its 16-13 win over the Mountaineers.
''For 11 weeks, I've been asked about the Big East and, in most of those 11 weeks, I've been asked about Pitt,'' West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said. ''Well, Pitt's here and I don't want to talk about the Big East. The only thing on my horizon is Pitt, Pitt, Pitt.''
No matter which team wins, it will probably be the result of defense, defense, defense.
''For us to get involved in a defensive game would be great,'' Sheard said. ''If that happens, I would put it on our backs. And I think we would win it.''
Mountaineers quarterback Geno Smith may target cornerback Antwuan Reed, who was flagged for four pass interference penalties during Pitt's 17-10 victory at South Florida on Saturday. Don't think that didn't get a lot of scrutiny in the West Virginia film study room.
''Antwuan was embarrassed, and he wants to get better real quick,'' Bennett said.
Like Smith, Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri, a first-year starter, has been inconsistent - one reason why wide receiver Jon Baldwin isn't catching as many deep balls as he did last season. Lewis has 661 yards rushing after running for 1,799 yards last season. He shares time with Ray Graham (804 yards), and coach Dave Wannstedt usually goes with whichever back runs better early.
''If you put them together, they're No. 1 (in the Big East),'' Stewart said. ''That's 170 yards out of the tailback. That's a problem.''
One that can be solved by superior defense in what is becoming one of the tightest, lowest-scoring rivalries in major college football.
''It's nice to know you are one of the top defenses in the country,'' West Virginia defensive lineman Scooter Berry said. ''But at the end of the day, it's all about how you play.''