Every Yard Counts
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The Backyard Brawl has become a football game where every single yard counts. That’s because the last three years the two defenses have reigned supreme.
“If you look at the statistics of both teams up to this point, I think both defenses have played better than what the offenses have,” said Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt.
“I think it will be a hard-hitting, physical football game,” added West Virginia’s Bill Stewart. “That’s what I anticipate because of the style of ball that we both play. We both play aggressive defense and ball-control types of offenses.”
Neither team was able to sustain a touchdown drive of more than three plays during last year’s game, a 19-16 West Virginia victory in Morgantown. Pitt’s touchdown came on a 50-yard Jonathan Baldwin catch, while West Virginia’s only TD was the result of a Noel Devine 88-yard run.
Two years ago in Pittsburgh, the Panthers got a pair of late TDs to overcome a 15-7 fourth quarter deficit. One was the result of a Pat White interception deep in West Virginia territory that led to a LeSean McCoy 5-yard touchdown run, while the other came after the Panthers got great field position and were able to march just 59 yards in 10 plays to score the winning TD.
In Pitt’s upset victory over West Virginia in 2007, the Panther defense permitted just one sustained scoring drive ending in the end zone when the Mountaineers went 74 yards in 14 plays late in the second quarter. It was WVU’s only touchdown of the game.
That 14-play, 74-yard drive remains the longest sustained drive that either team has been able to produce during the last three meetings.
Here is how dominant the two defenses have been since 2007 …
- West Virginia has managed just three touchdowns and seven field goals with two of those TDs – a 54-yard run by Pat White and an 88-yard run by Noel Devine – coming on long plays
- Pitt has scored five touchdowns and five field goals with two of those coming on plays of 30 yards or longer – a 30-yard Derek Kinder reception and a 50-yard Jon Baldwin catch
- West Virginia is averaging 14.3 first downs and 284 yards per game
- Pitt is averaging 17.7 first downs and 298.7 yards per game
- West Virginia is averaging 4.0 yards per rush
- Pitt is averaging 3.9 yards per rush
- The two teams have combined for 12 turnovers
And all signs point to another defensive struggle on Friday. West Virginia’s offense mustered just 15 first downs and 261 total yards in a 17-10 victory at Louisville last Saturday.
The Mountaineers have done nearly all of their damage in the first half in Big East games this season, scoring 85 of their 101 points before intermission. In the second half, West Virginia shows just one touchdown in five Big East contests.
Pitt, too, had difficulty moving the ball last week at South Florida, accumulating 292 total yards and 17 first downs in a 17-10 win.
“We knew it would be a tough game for us down there at South Florida,” said Wannstedt. “Bouncing back after the tough loss up at Connecticut was going to stress us a little bit from an emotional standpoint and I thought our kids did a great job of handling the game from start to finish. The guys hung together and we found a way to win.”
The Panthers are averaging 303.3 yards in their last three games against Louisville, Connecticut and USF after putting up 513 yards against Rutgers on Oct. 23.
The Panthers have scored 48 points in the fourth quarter in their five Big East games this season and 93 of Pitt’s 151 points in league action have come in the second half. Defensively, the Panthers have given up 24 fourth quarter points, although Pitt kept South Florida off the board in the final quarter of last Saturday’s game.
“They’re just really good across the board,” said West Virginia offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen. “There are going to be some matchup issues for us.”
Meanwhile, West Virginia’s defense has yet to give up a fourth quarter touchdown and has permitted just 20 second half points in five Big East games.
“Schematically they know what they are responsible to do,” said Wannstedt. “You can tell that they are well coached within the system. I would say the second thing is they’ve got players; they’ve got a nice combination of strength up front and speed on the edges. I think went you put all three of those ingredients together and you play hard then you’re going to play good defense.”
One additional factor to consider this Friday is the condition of the playing surface at Heinz Field, which is also used by the Pittsburgh Steelers and local high school teams. The New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders both filed complaints with the NFL after its games with the Steelers; large chunks of torn up turf were clearly visible in spots in the middle of the field during the Steelers’ game with the Raiders last Sunday.
Heinz Field has become notorious for its poor field conditions. During a Steelers game against the Miami Dolphins in 2007, a punted ball landed straight down in the mud with one end sticking up in the air. The turf at Heinz Field has been replaced numerous times since the facility first opened in 2001.
Mullen said they will have a plan in place if the field conditions are bad.
“We’ll just have to get in there and find out,” he said. “We have a plan for inclement weather and we’ll use that if we have to. If the conditions are too bad we will pull out plays from our game plan that won’t work.”
“We’ve just got to go out and play,” said West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith. “It’s not like we can pick another field to play on.”
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