"We were projected to go to the national championship," said WVU wide receiver Jock Sanders, providing a context that most Mountaineer fans would just as soon erase from their memories. "All we had to do was win that game. We went to the Fiesta Bowl and had a great game there but just think -- Fiesta Bowl versus national championship bowl."
Sanders and his teammates that were around for that game still believe they have some payback to dish out, even after last year's win which knocked the Panthers out of a BCS bowl. Pitt also won in 2008, so evening the score of the last four years at 2-2 is a primary motivation.
In and of itself, the Backyard Brawl always has bragging rights on the line, but when greater prizes are at stake, it just adds more to the match-up. This year's game will go a long way in determining the Big East champion, which carries with it a big bowl bid, most likely the Fiesta. The Mountaineers are hoping to ride the momentum that they have built in their last two wins, which has just added a bit more fuel to their fire.
"It's Pitt," said Sanders. "We're hyped up. We're ready. We have been practicing our tails off this week. We have to get our legs up under us but we're practicing hard. We're going to approach this game like we approach every other game. We're going to go out there with the mindset that we're going to win."
Sanders, who hasn't been shy about sharing his feelings about the game, has been on target with predictions throughout the season, including one that presaged the heights to which the WVU defense has scaled.
"I've been right ever since I said that if our defense holds them to 21 [points] we will win," he recapped. "We have a great defense, a great defense to lean on."
Sanders also made some headlines with a preseason statement to the effect that while Pittsburgh was picked to win the Big East, that the road to the conference title still came through West Virginia. He didn't mean that in an incendiary fashion, nor as disrespect to the Panthers, but felt as if his team was getting short shrift.
Now, with the game just a couple of days away, he hasn't backed away from that outlook.
"It's going to be an uphill battle and [Pitt] is in first place right now," said Sanders. "Congrats to them but we have another game to play that will determine everything."
While Sanders is eying the big prize, there's also a personal milestone on the horizon. The senior receiver is currently just one catch away from being the university's all-time receptions leader. While that will be a big accomplishment, Sanders is trying to keep it off of his mind while preparing for Friday's game.
"That's something on my list that I am proud of, but it won't really matter unless we get that victory," said Sanders.
While West Virginia has struggled to find their offensive identity over the course of the season, they seem to be playing with the most confidence that they have shown all season. The defense is flourishing and the offense while spotty, has been able to move the ball at times. As the team continues down the recovery road from two disappointing conference losses, Sanders believes that his career as a Mountaineer will end on a high note.
"Every team should play with a swagger and play with an attitude like they're going to win," said Sanders. "That's the attitude that we have around here. We lost three games that were lost within seven points and those are games that we think we should have won."
Mindset, swagger and determination might be just the items to make a difference in what's expected to be a grinding, low-scoring affair, and Sanders believes he and his teammates have the right mix as they enter the final preparation stages for the biggest game of the season.