Innate Intensity

Bill Stewart

WVU head coach Bill Stewart and his Pitt counterpart, Dave Wannstedt, both experienced the Backyard Brawl as players and now as coaches. Thus, they intimately know what emotions are tied into the border war -- even beyond the pressure that comes with the added implications Friday's match-up at Heinz Field has for the Big East Conference title race.

There have been many classic match-ups in the 102 Brawls that have happened prior Friday's noon kickoff in the Steel City: Pitt's comeback in 1970 (Stewart's freshman year) from a 35-8 halftime deficit to win 36-35; the Mountaineers' 17-14 victory in 1975 on a last second Bill McKenzie kick; the 31-31 tie that felt more like a loss to WVU fans (as the team surrendered a 22-point fourth quarter lead) in 1989.

"When I was a player here and coaching here in the front end, we were an independent, and so was West Virginia," recalled Wannstedt, who was an offensive tackle for the Panthers in the early '70s. "It was a big game because it was 70 miles away and we recruited the same kids and we crossed paths during the year. Our kids knew their kids and so forth. That was really the foundation and the basis for the initial rivalry."

The series' recent history has been colorful as well. West Virginia infamously flopped in a 13-9 stunner in the 2007 match-up, the 100th in series history, (a win would have sent the Mountaineers to the BCS Championship Game) but beat the then-No. 8 Panthers in Morgantown last season 19-16 on a 43-yard Tyler Bitancurt field goal on the game's final play.



Dave Wannstedt
But there is some added flavor this time around.

Pittsburgh (6-4, 4-1) leads the Big East Conference race by a game over the Mountaineers and Connecticut. If it beats WVU, it could secure the league's BCS bowl berth with a win against Cincinnati the following week or a Huskies loss in either of that team's last two games.

After a two-game losing streak, Stewart's squad has climbed back into the conference race with back-to-back wins over Cincinnati and Louisville. It must win Friday afternoon and in the regular season finale against Rutgers (and hope for UConn to fall to either the Bearcats or South Florida) to win the coveted BCS bowl slot.

"I got to hear Dave talk about the rivalry, and he's absolutely right. It's always a big rivalry," Stewart said. "[The schools are] 72 miles apart. Guys know each other. Coaches know each other. Then you add in the Big East, with this race ... since the formation of the Big East Conference, it's become an even bigger game."

"The position our football team is in right now, we're just trying to win a game," Wannstedt noted. "We're trying to get a shot to win a championship and now West Virginia is the next team we have to play. You combine trying to win a championship with the emotion of the Backyard Brawl, and the history of this game, 103 years, it makes for a lot of electricity. That's for sure."

POINTS AT A PREMIUM?

In some ways, the 2010 editions of the Panthers and Mountaineers have been mirror images of each other. Both teams have talent on offense but have not had the production to match it, while the teams' defenses have carried the load.

West Virginia (7-3, 3-2) has the defense is statistically the best in the conference in every major category, but Wannstedt and company aren't far behind. Pitt is 12th in the country in total defense (302.60 yards per game allowed) and 19th in scoring defense (19.20 points per game allowed).

Like WVU, Pittsburgh hasn't exactly set the world on fire offensively this season. It ranks 75th nationally in total offense (362.10 yards per game) and 57th in scoring offense (27.70 points per game).

But that doesn't mean the head Panther necessarily expects a low-scoring affair on Friday afternoon.

"The minute you say that [it will be a defensive struggle], it's a 36-35 game," Wannstedt said. "I think if you look at the statistics from both teams up to this point, I think both defenses have played better than what the offenses have.

"But I would say that when I look at West Virginia's offense, they've got a ton of play-makers. From quarterback [Geno Smith], and obviously we know about [running back] Noel Devine and about [slot receiver] Jock Sanders and about [receiver Tavon] Austin. You know, they've got a lot of guys that can score points in a hurry. And I think we do too. Up to this point, both teams have probably been a little more effective from the defensive side, but who knows how it's going to play out?"

That doesn't mean the sixth-year Pitt head coach doesn't expect another stellar afternoon from WVU's highly-ranked defense. In fact, he compared it favorably to the Panthers' other opponents, which included Miami (Fla.) and Utah in out-of-conference play.

"Schematically, they know what they are responsible to do," Wannstedt said. "You can tell that they are well-coached within the system. They've got players. They've got a nice combination of strength up front and speed on the edges. I think when you put all three of those ingredients together and play hard, you're going to play defense every week."

"This is probably as physical a group as we've faced, starting with the defensive line and all the way back to the safeties," the head coach added. "So I think they're playing within the system, which separates them. Athletically, if you took them and compared them with Miami or Utah or anybody else we've played, right across the board, they probably have as much or more talent."

"It's not going to be easy. This is one of those games where every play counts and every yard counts."

PRAISE FOR PUGNETTI:

Stewart said in the immediate aftermath of WVU's 17-10 win over Louisville on Saturday that his team's punter, Gregg Pugnetti, might be "our player of the game for the Mountaineers."

Apparently the folks at the Big East office thought so as well. Pugnetti was named the league's special teams player of the week for his performance against the Cardinals. The senior averaged 44.9 yards on his seven punts and placed two inside the U of L 20-yard line.

Statistically, that's a rather typical day for the Fairfax, Va., native. But considering the way Pugnetti was harassed by a relentless rush all day long, it was an exceptional outing for the punter, who played a key role in what was a contest determined by defenses and field position.

"That's a great honor for Gregg, and we surely appreciate it," Stewart said. "He earned it. I can tell you, he earned it, because he flipped the field for us all day."

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