Preview: Backyard Brawl

Pitt and West Virginia try to keep Big East title hopes intact as they meet in the 103rd Backyard Brawl.

BlueGoldNews.com Game Scorecard
Fri 11/26/10 12:00 PM

Pittsburgh, PA

Heinz Field
Record: 7-3
BCS: NR
Last Game
Louisville W 17-10
TV: ABC
Radio: MSN
Web: BlueGoldNews.com
Record: 6-4
BCS: NR
Last Game
USF W 17-10
Rosters/ Bios
Press Release
Season Stats
2010 Schedule

Series: Pitt 38-61-3
First Meeting: 1895
Last Meeting: 2009
Rosters/Bios
Press Release
Season Stats
2010 Schedule

Click for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Forecast



INJURIES

WVU – FB Chris Snook (Head), Out; LB Donovan Miles (Ankle), Questionable; DL Donovan Pearson (Toe), Out, Nick Kindler (Shoulder) Out, Jeff Braun (Shoulder) Probable, Noel Devine (Ankle) Probable.

Pitt – DL Greg Romeus (Out), Knee; WR Todd Thomas (Out), Knee; LB Dan Mason (Out), Knee; RB Jason Douglas (Out), Suspension; RB T.J. Peeler (Out), Knee; OL Keith Coleman (Out), Suspension; DB Jeff Knox (Out), Shoulder; DL Bryan Murphy (Out), Foot; WR Aaron Smith (Out), Illness; DB Aundre Wright (Out), Knee; OL Arthur Doakes (Out), Shoulder.


GAME OUTLOOK

WVU Offense vs. Pitt defense

West Virginia has proposed a bit more physical running as head coach Bill Stewart vowed to reward Shawne Alston with more carries. He'll be running into the strength of a Pitt defense that rates in the top 20 nationally in rushing yards allowed at 115 per game. Connecticut used power to grind out yardage, and that appears the best of running options for WVU, which stayed with a beat-up Noel Devine when the back's productivity significantly slipped. Alston's emergence and Stewart's vow are coinciding at a nice time. The grass at Heinz Field is notoriously poor at this time of year, and any cuts or quick movements Devine could have made would be lessened. The conditions call for a blue-collar, tough back, and the Mountaineers have a decent one. The issue for Alston will be his line matching that of the Panthers. Pitt's front four is solid, and applies good pressure while being able to handle the run well. Ends Brandon Lindsey and Jabaal Sheard have combined for almost 20 sacks and at 250 pounds show the strength to move lineman and the agility to make tackles in space. Tackles Chas Alexcxih and Myles Caragein are 280 and 290 pounds, respectively, and should be a sizeable hindrance to Alston's middle runs.

The linebackers are led by Max Gruder's team-high 54 tackles. Like in most 4-3 fronts, Pitt expects its line to eat up blockers so the linebackers are free to make plays. This unit has done that well in Big East play, but been beaten at times by teams like Miami and Utah – which have speed – as well as power unit's like Connecticut. If Pitt gets a slight edge in stopping West Virginia's run, the Mountaineers should have an edge throwing the football pending weather. Pitt is allowing 187 yards per game, a number that was greatly reduced from its more than 200-yard mark earlier this year. Much of that was because Pitt, which had allowed 220-plus yards passing to six of the first nine foes, played teams recently that are run-based (Rutgers, UConn). The Panthers have tightened in the red zone and not allowed a ton of big plays, and their eight interceptions have helped as well. There's not a ton of disguising going on with the back four, and indeed corners Antwuan Reed and Ricky Gary are far from the finest West Virginia has played this season. The Mountaineers do need to be aware of senior safety Tom DeCicco, but overall this isn't a great unit. If Geno Smith gets the time to throw – and that's aided greatly by the absence of Romeus and Alston blocking better than Devine – WVU should be able to find some downfield openings.

It's tough to pin this match-up down. WVU can throw the ball, if it has the time. It doesn't rush extremely well with Devine, but could show something with Alston – though the bigger back must break some tackles as the Mountaineers will be hard pressed to move Pitt's front four. And what of the new wrinkles West Virginia has noted it has installed? These aren't wholesale changes (it's far too late in the season to do such in a week's time), but a little variation in a well-set-up play can make for a major difference. This, one supposes, comes down to execution. Get a hat on a hat, don't snap the ball when, say, Smith's not looking, don't fumble multiple times and just generally play sound fundamental football. West Virginia's job here is not to beat itself, which it did at times last week, but to simply secure the football, score when the opportunity is there and not place the defense in repeatedly poor situations.

By The Numbers
West Virginia Pitt
Scoring Offense 25 ppg Scoring Defense 19.2 ppg
Rushing Offense 162.7 ypg Rushing Defense 115.2 ypg
Passing Offense 200.9 ypg Passing Defense 187.4 ypg

Advantage: Pitt


WVU Defense vs. Pitt Offense

Pitt likes to run, and it does so in a north-south power fashion. There's nothing fancy and few gimmicks, and those are exactly the teams West Virginia's 3-3-5 tends to do well against. The Panthers, which led the league in rushing last season, are slumping a bit this season as frosh sensation Dion Lewis' average has dipped from 138 per game last year to about 70 this season. Fellow sophomore Ray Graham has rushed for 95 yards per game, easing the load on Lewis, but it still hasn't been enough to rank any higher than fourth in the Big East. That's puzzling, because Pitt's line has two seniors and three juniors and was expected to have the experience and have jelled enough to knock opponents around this year. The front has protected quarterback Tino Sunseri adequately, and are decent enough to allow the Panthers to average a league-best 28 points per game – though that's only a touchdown removed from the league's worst offense in Rutgers. Early-season inconsistency has lessened since a few changes were made prior to the conference slate, though at this point the coaching staff is simply trying to maximize what they have, much like West Virginia.

Sunseri, who can run but isn't a runner, is throwing for more than 200 yards per game while completing about 65 percent of his passes. The sophomore, in his first season starting, has four times as many touchdowns as interceptions and rates second in the league in efficiency. Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, Jr. doesn't put a lot of onus on Sunseri to make the big plays, but rather to play within the offense and avoid the catastrophic. This is a successful passing squad that sets it up with the run. Combine steady, though not great, rushing ability with a line that protects decently and a big-time receiver in Jonathan Baldwin and Pitt has the weapons to move the ball against the Mountaineers. West Virginia should be able to at least stagnate the Panther running game. But can West Virginia shut down Baldwin, a surefire NFL-caliber player whose height and leaping ability create an instant mismatch?

That's the looming question. WVU has a very good free safety in Robert Sands, and his over-the-top help will be key. Sands must play well and help the corners with Baldwin as needed. At 6-5, 230 pounds, Baldwin as amassed more than 500 yards receiving this season, and his 68 average yards per game are third in the Big East. A long-strider, he is a deep threat who can make plays on jump balls. Add in split end Mike Shanahan's 6-5, 220-pound frame, and this is the most sizeable wideout corps West Virginia will play this season. WVU can't let Shanahan average his typical 13 yards per grab, and needs to contain Baldwin, as it's tough to stop him completely. If the Mountaineers slow the run and don't allow huge passing plays as it did against Syracuse, there's little reason to think Pitt will become the first team this season to score 21 points against West Virginia.

By The Numbers
West Virginia Pitt
Scoring Defense 12.9 ppg Scoring Offense 27.7 ppg
Rushing Defense 88 ypg Rushing Offense 154.3 ypg
Passing Defense 157.1 ypg Passing Offense 207.8 ypg

Advantage: West Virginia


WVU Special Teams vs. Pitt Special Teams

Pitt's Dan Hutchins leads the Big East in both placekicking and punting. The senior averages 47 yards per punt and has made 14 of 19 field goals. Add in that the Panther coverage unit rates second nationally in net with 41.7 yards per punt, and the home team gets an early edge here. West Virginia's Gregg Pugnetti is solid, but the protection was spotty against Louisville as the Cards came close to blocking three punts. WVU has yet to show it can consistently field punts, and with Brandon Hogan letting balls hit and roll for 20-plus yards, the Mountaineer field position greatly suffers. West Virginia can equal the Panthers in placekicking, as Hutchins is 14 of 19 – but just one of four from beyond 40 yards. Stewart largely prefers the punt over the 45-yard field goal, and with loose sod and potentially cold, wet conditions combining with the swirling winds at Heinz Field, Tyler Bitancurt might not try anything from more than 35 yards. Pitt's return game is about as mediocre as West Virginia's, as neither team has made many big plays this year. With Stewart's conservative style, the Panthers coverage and WVU's woes in fielding punts, this area again slips away from the Mountaineers.

By The Numbers
West Virginia Pitt
Net Punting 37.8 yards Net Punting 40.5 yards
KO Returns 17.9 yards per return KO Returns 20.8 yards per return
Punt Returns 8.7 yards per return Punt Returns 12.5 yards per return

Advantage: Pitt


PICKS TO CLICK

On Offense: Shawne Alston.

On Defense: Chris Neild, Robert Sands.


PREDICTION

Shoddy conditions via the elements and field, two teams that rely on defense and conservative offensive stylings and a pair of by-the-book head coaches lead this to look like a mediocre Big Ten-type match-up that will likely crown at least a partial Big East champion. West Virginia has made more mistakes in turning the ball over than has Pitt this season, and the Panthers have a down-field threat that can be well covered and still make plays in Jonathan Baldwin. There's nothing else that's scary about either team on the offensive side. On defense, West Virginia's a bit better and should be able to stop the run and slow the pass. But with the anemic Mountaineer offense and a punt unit that can't field the ball, a couple big plays from Baldwin are all it takes to score 14 to 17 points – which might be too much to overcome. This will be an ugly national showcase of Big East football, though there hasn't been any other kind this season.

West Virginia – 17 Pitt – 14

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