Horrible Heinz: Chewed-up turf awaits W.Va., Pitt
Several Oakland Raiders players called it a sandpit. By the time the West Virginia-Pitt rivalry game kicks off, it might resemble the fabled Church Pew bunkers at nearby Oakmont Country Club.
Large strips of sand were visible beneath Heinz Field's notoriously bad grass surface following Sunday's Raiders-Steelers game, especially the heavily used area at midfield between the 40-yard lines.
While the field will be covered until game day, more than an inch of rain is predicted before the Backyard Brawl game on Friday that will be televised nationally by ABC.
A bad field and bad weather can be a terrible combination, especially in Pittsburgh. But neither the Mountaineers nor the Panthers appear overly worried the field will affect the outcome of a game that could determine the Big East Conference's BCS representative.
Pitt (6-4, 4-1) currently leads the conference, but West Virginia (7-3, 3-2) remains in contention.
As West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said, the weather is frequently a factor during late-season games, and it's up to the teams to adjust.
''When you play on a wet field, what do you have to do?'' Stewart said. ''You keep your feet under you. ... We work on this all the time. We put balls in buckets during summer camp. It rains. It happens. If it's cold, it's cold. That's fine.''
Friday's forecast is for morning showers and temperatures in the high 30s, the coldest weather for a game at Heinz this season.
The Panthers hope horrible Heinz proves to be a decided home-field advantage.
''It's a pretty tough field, but we love it as a defense at Pitt,'' defensive end Jabaal Sheard said. ''If their guys slip, I'll take it as a big play for us. ... I want to slow down Noel Devine and Jock Sanders. If the field can help us to do that, it would be a great advantage.''
Heinz's turf has never been as bad as it was for the Steelers' 3-0 win over the Dolphins in 2007, decided by Jeff Reed's last-minute field goal in the first NFL game in more than 60 years to last that long without any scoring.
That night, the turf was drenched by 2 inches of monsoon-like rain that fell in late November, a rarity for Pittsburgh. The mud was so deep, one punt left the ball stuck in the turf nose-up, not moving an inch.
However, the field had been resodded only the day before and couldn't drain properly because of the relentless rain. Since then, Heinz's surface has been switched to all-grass, replacing a hybrid surface.
Heinz's grass stood up well last season, and the turf looked better in December than it often did in October in previous seasons. This season, the layer of sand beneath the grass already is far more visible than usual. The sand is for drainage.
Reed blamed the bad field for a missed 26-yard field goal attempt against the Patriots on Nov. 14, two days before the Steelers cut him. Linebacker James Harrison agreed the grass is in poor condition.
''Heinz Field has been like that for ages, and sometimes it can affect the kicking,'' Pitt kicker Dan Hutchins said. ''But I don't really worry about it. We've been able to overcome it before.''
The Steelers customarily replace the turf late each season, but they apparently are waiting for Saturday's four western Pennsylvania high school championship games to be played. The Steelers play three home games in a 12-day span from Dec. 12-23.
The Raiders certainly don't want to return soon.
''The field was absolutely atrocious,'' Raiders defensive tackle Tommy Kelly said. ''I don't know what they're doing out there. That was terrible. They've got big divots like we're playing golf. I mean, my shoe came off because my foot was stuck in the ground. C'mon, that should be taken care of.''
The Steelers haven't installed artificial turf because their players have repeatedly urged owner Dan Rooney to keep the grass, which they believe minimizes injuries. Players also disliked the artificial turf at Three Rivers Stadium, where the Steelers played from 1970-2000.