“I’m a little bit more short this week because I want to get right to the point,” Stewart said. “For 11 weeks, I’ve been asked about the Big East. For most of the 11 weeks, I’ve been asked about Pitt. Well, Pitt’s here. I don’t want to talk about the Big East. I want to talk about Pitt. The only thing on my horizon is Pitt, Pitt, Pitt. That’s on my horizon. That’s what I’m trying to keep my players [focused on]. Pitt. Now it’s here.”
The third-year West Virginia coach and his staff was so engrossed in preparing for Friday afternoon’s game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh that most forgot to tell their wives and families that Thanksgiving dinner would be moved up to Tuesday night at the Milan Puskar Center.
Coaches and their families will dine on turkey and all the traditional sides this evening with the players, as to allow Wednesday and Thursday to run on the same schedule WVU uses for the two days before every other football game.
“I don’t want to disrupt those final few days,” Stewart said.
“I normally don’t get too out of whack, but I had to apologize to the staff. I said, ‘Did anybody tell your brides tonight at 5:30 is Thanksgiving dinner?’ Just about to a man, they gave me that look, that teenage stare. I went, ‘Oh.’ I didn’t tell mine, and I’ve already caught the wrath. Wives can be very mean, especially about Thanksgiving and family dinners.”
While he could have perhaps taken a few seconds to inform his family about Tuesday night’s dinner, Stewart has spent much of his time in the days since WVU’s 17-10 win over Louisville on Saturday preparing for Friday’s Backyard Brawl by watching film of the Panthers.
What he sees is a team that has a rather clear identity -- an offense built around the running game (that throws in play-action passes to keep opposing defenses honest) and a defense that sticks to a lot of “base” plays, relying on the four down linemen to generate pressure and allowing head coach Dave Wannstedt and company to more freely use their linebackers and secondary members in coverage.
“That’s Pitt football,” Stewart said. “It’s tough. It’s been successful for Dave, and I don’t see him changing it.”
That approach might be ideal for both teams, as heavy use of the notoriously poor natural grass surface at Heinz Field combined with a forecast that calls for cold temperatures, rain and possible snow showers may leave the most heavily-traveled areas of the field in poor shape by the time the two old rivals tee it up on Friday afternoon.
But Stewart said field conditions weren’t entering into his way of thinking.
“I don’t talk about it. Oakland talked about it,” Stewart said, referencing the NFL Raiders’ 35-3 loss to the home-standing Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday. “That’s what I told the team.”
West Virginia has practiced on its own natural grass field this week, though, and has worked on wet ball drills throughout the season, according to Stewart. So while the head coach doesn’t want to make a big deal about the potential conditions, he won’t ignore the possibility of his team having to play on a poor surface.
“I mean, I look,” said the head Mountaineer. “I’m not that big of a knucklehead. When you play on a wet field or loose turf or whatever, what do you have to do? When you’re on a wet floor at home, a tile floor or a wood floor, what do you do? You keep your feet under you and narrow your base. That’s all. The kicker and punter, it’s all about what foot -- not the kicking foot, the plant foot. You can’t over-stride. You just can’t.”
Regardless of the weather or the shape of the surface at Heinz Field on Friday, Stewart expects each team to stick to what it knows best when it comes time to play the Backyard Brawl for the 103rd time.
“They should be who they are and what they are,” he said. “In a game like this, the 11th game of the season for both teams, why change? We’re who we are. They’re who they are.
“Will there be some wrinkles? You bet. There’d better be some wrinkles. We expect some wrinkles, and I’m sure they should expect some. But this is going to be football at its best. It’s going to be right out there in the open. It doesn’t matter where we’re playing. It’s Pitt. It’s Pitt.”
ADDED WORK FOR ALSTON?
One of those “wrinkles” may be something several observers of the West Virginia football team have been calling for in the last several weeks.
Stewart said he didn’t want to “tip [his] hand entirely,” but several of his comments indicated that running back Shawne Alston may be a more significant part of the Mountaineer offense on Friday afternoon.
The sophomore from Hampton, Va., has served as a “closer” of sorts for WVU in recent weeks, coming into games late and earning tough yards as part of clock-killing drives when Stewart’s squad holds the lead.
Alston is a quicker back than Ryan Clarke that has more size and power than starting tailback Noel Devine. It might just be the perfect balance of what the offense needs to generate more points than it has at times this season.
“I tried to tell you one time we were going to try to run Geno a little bit more maybe, and we did it 12 times for 64 yards,” Stewart reminded the media of his promise in the days leading up to his team’s 16-13 overtime loss at Connecticut. “Shawne may get some more touches. And you’re right, he’s earned it. He’s played hard. He’s played well.”
Alston has carried 30 times for 143 yards this season, an average of 4.8 yards per attempt. He ran seven times for 36 yards in West Virginia’s 17-10 win over Louisville last Saturday -- just one week after going for 75 yards on 17 carries in the team’s victory over Cincinnati.
“I’m going to look it over and get a feel and go,” Stewart said of the idea of playing a bit more power football than normal against Pitt. “But there’s things ... you know, I’m honest, but I can’t give you the inside skinny on everything. You know that.”
PREPARE FOR COMBAT:
After their debut at an event in New York City on Sept. 1, buzz almost immediately began to build around the Nike Pro Combat uniforms that West Virginia and Pitt will both be wearing for Friday’s Backyard Brawl.
It hasn’t died down, as WVU apparel and memorabilia retailers throughout the Mountain State sold out of their supply of the replica versions of the jerseys almost as quickly as they could stock them last week.
The uniforms are designed to represent more than just the athletic programs of the respective universities -- each pays homage to the blue-collar work-ethic both Pittsburgh and the state of West Virginia are known for.
The Panthers’ ensemble is a nod to that town’s history with the steel industry, while the Mountaineers’ get-up serves as a tribute to the state’s coal miners, including the 29 who lost their lives at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal this April.
Nike designers have said WVU’s uniform is meant to mimic what a white uniform might look like if it emerged from a day within the mines. Players will wear gold cleats, meant to represent the canaries that were used in days gone by to test toxicity within the mines. A gold stripe down the center of a redesigned helmet symbolizes the beam of light emitted from the headlamp on a miner’s helmet.
“The meaning behind it is what has me all excited,” Stewart said. “It’s about who we are and all the symbolic things that the uniform represents. Man, if you’re a West Virginian, and that uniform on Friday doesn’t crank you up, then there’s something wrong.
“I’m an old gold and blue guy -- believe me. But that’s us. That’s who we are. That’s the men of the mountains. We’re going out there and representing the people of this great state in a uniform that means a whole lot to our players ... we’re going to do everything we can to represent that uniform as best we can for the people of West Virginia.”