On Friday afternoon at Heinz Field, Bill Stewart will roam the sidelines of the Backyard Brawl for the first time as West Virginia’s head coach. Of course Stewart has spent the previous eight seasons as an assistant in the annual rivalry under both Don Nehlen and Rich Rodriguez.
Perhaps Stewart’s best memories of the Brawl, however, come from a time long before his coaching career began.
“They are up 60-37-3, and for West Virginians, that doesn’t set well,” Stewart said of Pitt’s sizeable advantage in the all-time series. “I grew up listening to Jack Fleming on WETZ in New Martinsville, W.Va. If I didn’t have it in New Martinsville, I was over in Preston County at my grandparents’ house listening to it there.”
Stewart also remembers the infamous 1970 game in which West Virginia raced out to a four-touchdown lead at the half only to lose by a point.
“My freshman year in 1970, we were up 35-7 at halftime of Coach Bowden’s first year,” recalled Stewart, who spent one season at WVU before transferring to Fairmont State. “Freshmen were not allowed to participate on the varsity level at that time, not until ’72. I do remember that loss. It lingered with Coach Bowden and has for his entire career, by his own admission. That’s tough, but that’s why they call it the Backyard Brawl.”
More recently, of course, last year’s 13-9 Pitt upset which kept the Mountaineers out of the national title game was West Virginia’s most difficult defeat in the series since that aforementioned 1970 game. Stewart, who served as the associate head coach and tight ends/fullbacks mentor last season, offered a simple explanation for what happened last December in Morgantown.
“I heard a bunch of stuff about how we weren’t clicking,” he said. “We got hit right in the chin. They played a great football game and beat us here in our own backyard. That’s the bottom line. That’s what I saw.”
Much of the credit for Pitt’s success in last season’s game went to then-defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, who later left the Panthers to take the same position at Auburn. In his place is former SMU head coach Phil Bennett. Despite the coaching staff change, Stewart sees a similar Pitt defense to that of last season.
“They are tough,” Stewart said. “I see the same front alignment. I think McKillop, that cat is a special, special guy. The reason I say that about Scott is that I really like his leadership. He’s a smart player and he keeps them all together.
“They really schemed us really well last year, and I see that same type of scheme and coaching watching the film this year. Pitt really has our attention. They’re a good defense, a good team.”
For West Virginia’s defense, much of the focus this week will centered around trying to find a way to slow talented sophomore running back LeSean McCoy. McCoy was spectacular in his first Backyard Brawl appearance, running 38 times for 148 yards. This season, the Harrisburg, Pa. native has already run for 1,139 yards and 14 touchdowns for the 7-3 Panthers.
“He’s pretty special,” Stewart said. “He ran through us last year. Toughness, toughness, toughness. How many carries did he have against us last year, 38? I’ve talked to Jeff (Casteel). We had a conversation this morning about that situation. Boy, he’s special. Very, very special. He’s a competitor. He’ll be tough to contain.”
At this point in his career, McCoy’s numbers are similar to legendary Pitt great Tony Dorsett, who went on to star for the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. During his Tuesday press conference, Stewart was asked to compare the two. According to him, both players possess unique qualities on the field.
“Tony was probably faster, just from what I saw,” Stewart said. “Tony Dorsett would just run away from people, from pros. When you run away from pros, you’re running away from the fastest football players in the world. That’s certainly no disrespect to Mr. McCoy.
“(McCoy’s) balance. All the great ones you see have balance. Think of all the great ones you’ve ever seen in your watching sports and balance separates them. They never take a frontal shot,” he continued. “The ones with balance…like Donald Brown (at UConn). He never gets hit in the chest, from what I see. You won’t see Noel and Jock get hit in the chest. That’s what (McCoy) looks like.”
To simulate McCoy’s combination of quickness and power in practice, a number of players have been repping at running back on the scout team. Redshirting freshman Terence Kerns can run with power at least somewhat reminiscent of McCoy’s. Smaller, shiftier backs such as Mike Poitier have the ability to give West Virginia’s defense a look at similar quickness. Regardless of who is simulating McCoy on the scout team, the objective remains the same – swarm to the football.
“You have to get to him and gang tackle him,” Stewart said. “That’s what we did at UConn, getting multiple hats to the football. We have to do that against Pittsburgh, get multiple hats to the ball.”