Pitt enters the Backyard Brawl clinging to a chance to win the Big East title in a tie-breaker, but must have a lot going its way, beginning with beating West Virginia on its home field and then taking Syracuse at home.
It isn't easy, just the idea of winning at Cincinnati against a team that has so many reasons to be sky high in WVU. First, of course, is just the Backyard Brawl rivalry that goes back to 1895. Then there is Pitt's defection to the ACC that put WVU's very program at risk and forced it to move to the Big 12, and, of course, there's that 2007 upset in Morgantown when the four-TD underdog Pitt team knocked WVU out of the BCS championship game.
Holgorsen was offensive coordinator at Houston in 2009 when his Cougars beat Graham's Tulsa team 46-45. Afterward, Holgorsen accused Graham of "cheating" by having his players fake injuries in the fourth quarter to slow Houston's offense. Each coach could be seen yelling at the other from across the sidelines during the game.
Graham denied cheating, but chances are he came up with the idea of doing that to slow Houston the previous year when Holgorsen laid it to him, 70-30. The year after the slowdown, Holgorsen was at it again, this time as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, beating Tulsa, 65-28.
Adding more to the rivalry form the Pitt angle is that five Pitt coaches worked for WVU under Rich Rodriguez -- head coach Graham, offensive coordinator Calvin Magee, tight ends coach Tony Dews, defensive line coach/co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph and cornerbacks coach Tony Gibson.
--Pitt ranks first in the Big East and eighth national in red zone efficiency, scoring 32 of 35 times into the red zone with 26 TDs and six FGs.
--Pitt leads the Big East and is No. 12 nationally in third down efficiency defense, allowing opponents to convert on only 32 percent of their third downs. Over the past three games Pitt has limited foes to 8 of 38 conversions, which is 21 percent.
SERIES HISTORY: Pittsburgh leads West Virginia, 61-39-3 (last meeting in 2010, WVU, 35-10).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Coach Todd Graham ran a high-powered offense at Tulsa but the going has been slower at Pittsburgh as he took over a team built for Dave Wannstedt's pro-style approach rather than his high octane theory. To make it work, Graham slowed down the pace at which he was running plays in the last game and it helped as QB Tino Sunseri and his team cut down on penalties and mistakes. The offense is built around Sunseri's ability to throw and gives him freedom to run, having changed greatly from what was anticipated with star RB Ray Graham. Graham was second in the nation in rushing before blowing out his knee.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Pitt's defense doesn't have to worry much about the WVU running game, which ranks No. 97 in the nation with just 117 yards a game. But that may not be a good thing for the Panthers are pretty good at stopping the run at No. 24 in the country. The problem lies in Pitt's pass defense, which gives up 233 yards a game. They will be facing a sophisticated passing game led by QB Geno Smith that is sixth best in the nation at 362 yards a game. The key will be the pass rush, for WR Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin have been nearly unstoppable if Smith has time to find them. Pitt does have one of the top pass-rushing teams in the country.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's one of those that if you win, you get the ball painted and put it in the trophy case. It's history." -- Pitt coach and former WVU assistant Todd Graham, quoted in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, on what the Backyard Brawl is all about.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Pittsburgh at West Virginia, Nov. 25 -- One of the longest-running rivalries in college football, dating back to 1895, the Backyard Brawl enters its 104th chapter and perhaps the final one as Pitt is headed for the ACC and WVU to the Big 12. Two new coaches but old rivals meet in the game, Todd Graham at Pitt and Dana Holgorsen at WVU. They met three times when Holgorsen was at Oklahoma State and Graham at Tulsa and Holgorsen really piled up the points, winning one game 70-30.
West Virginia has won 6 of the last 11 meetings but Pitt won the biggest one, upsetting WVU while a four-TD underdog in 2007 to knock the Mountaineers out of a spot in the national championship game. Pitt last won in the series in 2008, overcoming a 15-7 deficit in the fourth quarter to win 19-17 at Heinz Field.
KEYS TO THE GAME: In the past, WVU's Dana Holgorsen has found ways to score and score on Todd Graham when Graham was coaching at Tulsa, once winning 70-30. Graham now is in charge of much better defense and that could play a key role in the game. Holgorsen's offense is far more advanced than Pitt's, especially since the Panthers are without their top threat, RB Ray Graham. So, the Pitt defense is going to have to rise to the occasion and that means putting pressure on WVU QB Geno Smith while trying to contain WRs Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, each a touchdown threat. Offensively much pressure falls on the shoulders of QB Tino Sunseri, who must limit turnovers and make use of his newly-found receiving threat, Devin Street.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR Devin Street -- This is a one-way street, straight to the end zone. The sophomore receiver comes into the Backyard Brawl off consecutive 100-yard receiving games and they came against two of the top teams in the Big East. Street had eight catches for 118 yards against Cincinnati and then six catches for 101 yards against Louisville. His best game was a seven catch, 138-yard performance against Iowa.
QB Tino Sunseri has become something of a dual threat, especially near the end zone, having rushed for a touchdown in three consecutive games. With RB Ray Graham out for the year with a knee injury, Sunseri has carried more of a load both through the air and on the ground. His four TDs rushing are the most by Pitt QB since Tyler Palko had six in 2005. It is with his arm, however, where Sunceri will have to make a difference in this game.
--Sophomore DT Aaron Donald has come out of nowhere to become the top pass rusher in the Big East and been savaging opposing quarterbacks. Donald leads the Big East and ranks seventh nationally with 0.90 sacks per game. He has nine sacks for the year, seven in the past four games. WVU gave up five sacks last week to Cincinnati, which did not run a lot of confusing blitzes, so Donald may be able to blow up a few plays.
--The Pitt offense has been ravaged by injuries, none more meaningful than the knee injury that ended RB Ray Graham's season just as he was about to reach 1,000 yards. He stood No. 2 in the nation in rushing when injured.
--OL Chris Jacobson suffered a knee injury, too, and is out for the season, as is OL Matt Rotheram, who injured an ankle, and WR Cameron Saddler, who suffered a sternum injury.
--RB Zach Brown has filled in for Ray Graham at tailback and done an adequate job without being the breakaway threat that Graham possessed. He has rushed for 269 yards (4.0 avg.) with four TDs on 67 carries while has caught 24 passes for 180 yards, 7.5 per catch.