The Inside Slant - Thursday

When West Virginia and Pittsburgh collide in the 103rd renewal of the Backyard Brawl, the quarterbacks will be front and center as they go against two of the best defenses in the Big East.

Certainly they are similar, both sophomores in their first seasons as starters, feeling their way along and suffering some growing pains.

Pain is a word both might use at the end of this day, as both teams have savage pass rushes. Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri needs to look out for West Virginia's Bruce Irvin, and West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith needs to avoid defensive ends Jabaal Sheard and Brandon Lindsey.

Irvin and Lindsey come into the game tied for the conference lead with 10 sacks each.

"Their blitz tendencies aren't as much as Louisville or Syracuse, but they do have a lot of talented guys on the front four that can get just as much pressure," Smith said of Pitt. "I have to do a good job of getting the ball out of my hands and being sharp with my reads."

Smith has seen some heavy pressure -- West Virginia has allowed up 2.1 sacks per game overall and three per game in Big East play. Last year Louisville's only touchdown came when Smith was sacked and fumbled into the end zone.

Rest assured Pitt has watched that film closely.

Sunseri has a more complicated defense to take apart in West Virginia's 3-3-5 stack, a defense devised to have players attacking the quarterback from anywhere. While Pitt shows only six players having a hand in sacks, West Virginia has twice as many, many of them linebackers and safeties.

The team that can put the most pressure on the quarterback will have taken a big leap forward toward winning this game.

--The Panthers spent a good deal of time working on pass defense techniques this week after being called for five pass-interference calls in a 17-10 victory over South Florida. CB Ricky Gary, guilty of one of the calls, says the NCAA is leaning too far against the defense to get more offense in the game. "Now college is turning into like the NFL. You can't touch receivers down the field. It is an offensive game," Gary said. "I play defensive back because I love it and it is a challenge, and everybody doesn't play it because it presents that type of challenge. (The pass interference) is just a technique thing. We'll get that fixed. We're not going to commit those kinds of penalties."

--Pitt's defense is No. 16 against the rush and it has held five opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing, while Miami had exactly 100 yards and Louisville 103. West Virginia's rushing game has deteriorated in the past year and has not been the threat it was in the Patrick White, Steve Slaton and Owen Schmitt era.

SERIES HISTORY: Pittsburgh leads, 61-38-3 (last meeting, 2009, West Virginia, 19-16).

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: This is a typical Dave Wannstedt offense, heavy on the run and a ball-control passing game with occasional strikes deep down the field. The Panthers still use a fullback and a tight end and try to wear defenses down while not making mistakes or turnovers. Because RB Dion Lewis did not get off to a quick start, a lot more pressure fell onto the shoulders of QB Tino Sunseri, a first-year starter who has shown steady improvement as the season went on. Especially dangerous are long strikes to tall, swift wide receiver Jon Baldwin. Pitt also made a couple of early-season adjustments in its offense, and that group has played much better over the past six or seven games.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Pitt has had to withstand a couple of injuries, the most serious of which being a season-ending knee injury to DE Greg Romeus, the Big East's co-Defensive Player of the Year for 2009, but the Panthers have not really missed a beat. They still are among the most prolific pass rushers in football, as Brandon Lindsey has moved into Romeus' spot and recorded 10 sacks, tying for the Big East lead. On the other side of the line, Jabaal Sheard has put together a spectacular senior season both against the run and by pass rushing, becoming a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. The linebackers are solid, and the defensive secondary is a ball-hawking group headed by safeties Dom DiCiccio and Jarred Holley, who have nine interceptions between them.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "My freshman year, I didn't understand what the Backyard Brawl was. It seemed like it was just another game with a little bit of hype around it, but you learn that it is really a rivalry game. It's a fight in the back yard. Everything goes. You don't leave anything on the field." -- Pittsburgh senior DE Jabaal Sheard, on the rivalry with West Virginia.


THIS WEEK'S GAME: West Virginia at Pittsburgh, Nov. 26 -- This is one of the nation's longest running and most bitter rivalries, renewing for the 103rd time as the Backyard Brawl. Pitt can clinch a tie for the Big East title if it wins while eliminating West Virginia from a shot at the BCS bowl bid. The two teams have split the last 10 games, but Pitt has won two of the last three, including the memorable 2007 upset that kept West Virginia from reaching the national championship game. Pitt leads the series 61-38-3, but West Virginia enters this game coming off a thrilling 19-16 victory in Morgantown last year on PK Tyler Bitancurt's last-second field goal.

KEYS TO THE GAME: If Pitt is to defeat West Virginia, it is going to have to find a way to solve a defense that no one this season has figured out. The Mountaineers use a 3-3-5 stack and do it to perfection, allowing no team more than 21 points and being ranked fourth in the nation overall on defense.

The pass rush is vicious, especially from Bruce Irvin, who has 10 sacks. The pressure will be on the Pitt offensive line, reconstructed in midseason. Defensively, the challenge looks greater than it is with West Virginia. The Mountaineers have not run the ball well this year, and RB Noel Devine has not done much in the way of breaking long rushes, so Pitt's run defense that has held five opponents to fewer than 100 yards should be able to handle matters. Tougher will be containing West Virginia's passing game, which has a number of deep threats but hasn't found a way to get to them. Pitt's savage pass rush, ranked 15th nationally and second in the Big East, will crank it up and go after QB Geno Smith in a big way. West Virginia has not been very effective returning kicks, so Pitt could take advantage of field position given them by P/PK Dan Hutchins.

WR Jon Baldwin -- Baldwin, who may be playing his final game at Heinz Field should he opt to head to the NFL, is the big-play receiver and will probably get a lot of man coverage from West Virginia's two talented corners, Keith Tandy and Brandon Hogan. He has already had 20 catches of 40 or more yards in his career, 11 of those touchdowns. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt likes to set up deep shots off play-action.

DE Brandon Lindsey -- He stepped into the starting lineup in the second game of the season when senior Greg Romeus was sidelined indefinitely due to back injury. A former linebacker, Lindsey has since emerged as an All-Big East candidate at end with his highly productive play, leading the Big East in tackles for loss (1.40 per game) and sharing the league lead in quarterback sacks (1.00 per game). His presence makes it impossible for West Virginia to double Jabaal Sheard, the other defensive end and star pass rusher.

RB Dion Lewis -- Lewis is having a down year, just like his West Virginia counterpart, Noel Devine. Lewis has, however, shown signs lately of breaking loose. He has surpassed 100 yards in two of his last four games, and his last game against South Florida saw him gain 105 yards with a touchdown on 22 carries, his highest total since he carried 25 times in the opener against Utah. Only against Rutgers had he previously broken the 100-yard mark. If Lewis can find a way to get something going against a West Virginia defense that is giving up only 88 yards a game, the Panthers can play the ball-control game they like.

--Ten Pitt seniors will play their final game at Heinz Field in the Backyard Brawl: DB Dan Cafaro, WR Greg Cross, DB Dom DeCicco, DB Ricky Gary, P/PK Dan Hutchins, C Alex Karabin, DL Nate Nix, OL Jason Pinkston, DL Jabaal Sheard and DL Tyler Tkach.

--DE Greg Romeus would have been playing his final game at Heinz Field but is out after undergoing knee surgery. Romeus played only two games this season before injuring his back in the opener, and then suffered the knee injury upon his return.

--The father of Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. (Frank Sr.) served as head coach at West Virginia from 1976-79. Additionally, Frank Jr.'s brother, Curt, was a quarterback on West Virginia's 1981 Peach Bowl and 1982 Gator Bowl teams.

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