Geno Smith is in the running for all-conference honors at quarterback with the year he's having. As opposed to some of the spread quarterbacks that Pitt has faced over the years in this series, Smith provides more balance. Smith can still run, but he's not the running threat that Pat White was. He might however, have more of an arm than White did.
That might be considered a breath of fresh air for a Pitt defense that had a hard time stopping White in 2005 and 2006, as he ran for 220 yards in each of those games. Based on Smith's ability as a thrower, he's almost more dangerous. Smith has completed 187of-293 passes for 2,003 yards, 19 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
Because of Smith, West Virginia's offense is more balanced than it has been since they started running the spread formation.
"Two things you can tell about him," defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said. "He has a strong arm, and he's been coached well. When you have 19 touchdowns and six interceptions in your first year starting, (offensive coordinator Jeff) Mullen has done a good job with him."
With the threat of a strong-armed quarterback in Smith making the offense more balanced, within that more balanced offense is a more balanced running game. In recent matchups, the Panthers have had to key in on just Steve Slaton or just Noel Devine--enough to give the Panthers problems. Devine, whose 88-yard touchdown run was a game breaker in last year's win for West Virginia, has been bothered by injuries this year. The senior has still managed to rush for a team-best 826 yards and six touchdowns. Defensive coordinator Bennett believes Devine is a threat healthy or not.
"I could never tell the difference," Bennett added. "He convinced me with that 88-yard (touchdown) run last year that we're going to have to be aware."
Throw in other backs such as the 6-0, 247-pound Ryan Clarke (67 carries, 252 yards, 3 TD) or even a player like Brad Starks, who opened the scoring in the loss at UConn with a 53-yard touchdown. Instead of just one running back doing the damage, this year's West Virginia team has multiple players that are tough to stop in the running game.
"They're a little more diverse in the standpoint of they're capable of the two-back runs, as well as running the option game," head coach Dave Wannstedt. "They have a lot of talent, we know that. They do a good job of finding ways to get those guys the ball."
Jock Sanders is West Virginia's leading receiver, but a number of their receivers have proven to be big-play threats this season. Sanders (54 receptions, 519 yards, 4 TD) and former running back Tavon Austin (45 receptions, 553 yards, 5 TD) pace the Mountaineer passing attack.
"They have a chance at any time to be explosive," Bennett said. "There's Jock Sanders, who's going to be their all-time leading receiver. Tavon Austin is getting better and better. They converted him from a running back."
In addition to Sanders and Austin, Brad Starks (17 receptions, 261 yards, 4 TD) and Stedman Bailey (17 receptions, 231 yards, 3 TD) have drawn the attention of the coaching staff this week. Bailey is another big-play, speed guy like Sanders. Phil Bennett also said that tight end Tyler Urban--a high school teammate of Pitt's Mike Shanahan--might not have the numbers to prove it, but he's a big factor in the Mountaineers' run game, and also how well they open the passing game. J.D. Woods (13 receptions, 161 yards, 1 TD) gives the Mountaineers another option in the slot.
"They're throwing a lot more bubble screens," Wannstedt added. "They're using their people, and getting Jock Sanders involved a lot."
This might be the best matchup of the day. The experience they have on the offensive line allow them to do whatever they want on offense. With four of five starters returning from a year ago, there's no limit to what the offensive line can do running or throwing the ball.
"They hit us with a trap last year that Noel Devine broke," defensive end Jabaal Sheard said. "That was a trap play, or something. They have a veteran offensive line, and we have a bunch of new starters that matured a lot. It's going to be a battle up front. Their offensive line has always been tough."
The offensive line has a few familiar names, meaning there's a few guys in there that were once Pitt recruits. Starting at left tackle is Seneca Valley grad Don Barclay (6-4, 304). Barclay had a Pitt offer coming out of high school, but had some family ties to West Virginia which helped draw him out of state. The left guard is Josh Jenkins (6-3, 300). Jenkins and Lucas Nix lined up on the same offensive line in the 2008 U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Jenkins also was a one-time Pitt recruit. At center is Joe Madsen (6-4, 290). On the right side, it's Eric Jobe at guard (6-2, 290) and Jeff Braun at tackle (6-4, 308). Thomas Jefferson alum Pat Eger has also made his way to the field this year as a redshirt freshman.
This offensive line has allowed a sack for every 14.4 passing attempts; one of the best in the Big East. They'll be going up against bookend defensive ends Jabaal Sheard (9 sacks) and Brandon Lindsey (10 sacks). While Sheard and Lindsey have been consistent all year, tackles Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih contribute more each week. Caragein had a season-high six tackles last week, while Alecxih leads all Big East defensive tackles with 4.5 sacks.
It's the toughest test that either the Pitt defensive line or the West Virginia offensive line has seen all year. They will be making it tough for each other for an entire 60 minutes, something that senior defensive end Jabaal Sheard said is the standard of this rivalry.
"In the Backyard Brawl, you get even tougher," Sheard said. "You get angry the whole game. You really don't like this person across the ball from you. Off the line, when they play dirty, they sometimes get the best of you. This game, we have to go out there and fight until the last whistle blows."
West Virginia's scoring defense is one of the best in the country. The Mountaineers lead the Big East, allowing just 12.9 points a game, and have only given up more than 20 points a game in two games (at Marshall, at LSU).
"Their emphasis is stopping the run," offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, Jr. said. "They have a great front seven. They press gaps."
While the emphasis is on taking away the run, because of it's setup, the rest of the defense is in position to cut down the pass. It all starts up front with the three down linemen, who specialize in gap control--an impressive task for just three guys up front. Scooter Berry (6-1, 287) has 38 career starts, and is second among the defensive linemen with three sacks and three tackles for losses. Julian Miller (6-4, 260), the end oppoiste Berry, leads the defensive line with nine tackles for losses and four sacks. The nose tackle is Chris Neild (6-2, 301). Bruce Irvin comes off the bench to lead the Big East with 10 sacks.
"They play hard, they play relentless," Cignetti, Jr. added. "They create turnovers. They stop the run. They can make a team one-dimensional very fast."
With five defensive backs covering the pass and providing run support, the linebackers in this defense have a lot of support. There's not a whole lot they need to do based on the other players around them, yet they still produce.
"Watching them on tape, you understand why they are one of the top defenses in the country," quarterback Tino Sunseri said. "They're fast, they're athletic, they cover a lot of ground quick. They're aggressive, and you can see them correct their mistakes fast.
"They do a lot of things to get close to the line of scrimmage. They bring a few pressures here and there, but they want to establish themselves at the line of scrimmage."
All three starting linebackers have started every game this season, and provide plenty of experience. McKeesport's Anthony Leonard (6-1, 246) starts in the middle, and is second on the team with 56 tackles. Najee Goode (6-1, 238) starts on the strong side, and leads the linebackers with seven tackles for losses. On the weakside is J.T. Thomas (6-2, 225). Thomas has 52 tackles on the season.
With all the experience at the other positions on the field, and the production they've gotten out of those positions this year, the secondary may be the Mountaineers' strength on defense.
"They have a very talented secondary," Cignetti, Jr. said. "It's going to be a great challenge, as it has been for every team, to get balance in the run game and the pass game."
While the aim of the entire defense is to shut down the run, the Mountaineers lead the Big East in total defense (245.1 yards/game), rushing defense (88.0 yards/game) and pass defense (157.1 yards/game). The Mountaineers defense has also allowed the fewest rushing touchdowns all season (3), the fewest passing touchdowns all season (7). The two extra safeties (Terrance Garvin, 6-3, 215; Sidney Glover, 5-11, 207) they use can act as extra linebackers in run support or extra defenders in the pass game. Garvin leads the team with 61 tackles on the season.
The guy it all evolves around, is the free safety Robert Sands (6-5, 221). Sands has 41 tackles on the season.
"They play him in center field in their base defense," Cignetti, Jr. added. "He has great range. He's a cover guy. He will fill the alleys and get involved in the running game."
With those three safeties making plays in the run and pass game, it allows the corners to step up and make other plays. Keith Tandy (5-10, 198) and Brandon Hogan (5-10, 189) lead the team with six and two interceptions respectively.
"From what I've seen so well, they're real aggressive," receiver Mike Shanahan said. "They pursue the ball well. There's always four or five guys making a tackle around the ball. They switch things up in coverages. They're complex in what they do."