Holgorsen Focus On Game, Not Feud With Graham

Tonight's Backyard Brawl does not signify the first meeting between Dana Holgorsen and Todd Graham. Both have coaches have developed an existing rivaly, which only adds to the intensity of the Backyard Brawl.

West Virginia and Pittsburgh meet in the 104th renewal of the Backyard Brawl the day after Thanksgiving, perhaps the last renewal of it as both plan to switch leagues, perhaps as early as next year.

As it should be, it is a crucial game to both teams, an elimination game in the tight race for the Big East's BCS bowl bid. The loser will have three conference losses.

West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen has tried to put the focus on the importance of the game rather than the rivalry, but considering it is Pitt and West Virginia and that it's Holgorsen against Todd Graham, with whom he feuded when he was at Houston and Oklahoma State and Graham at Tulsa, it becomes a lot more.

Holgorsen will go into the game have turned back his offense some in an effort to get rid of 16 penalties and other mistakes made against Cincinnati.

"I've changed quite a bit in what the play-calling is and how fast it gets done and the amount of plays that we're running," he said. "All that stuff is a little different than what I've been used to."

WVU has not yet reached the point Holgorsen was at with his offense at Houston and Oklahoma State, in part because he inherited a different type of system from Bill Stewart when he took over.

"The (previous) philosophies offensively at Houston and Oklahoma State were similar," Holgorsen said. "There were guys that were used to doing things similar to how we run them. The personnel was in place to where we could handle that. We're not there offensively."

That does not mean WVU won't run quickly and fill the air with passes, trying to ride into the BCS on the arm of quarterback Geno Smith.

--West Virginia will be out to cut back on the 16 penalties they were hit with last week in the game against Cincinnati.

--AD Oliver Luck, at the direction of the Big East, reprimanded QB Geno Smith for comments made about the officiating after the victory over Cincinnati.

--WR Stedman Bailey, who has seven 100-yard receiving games, has broken the school record for receiving yards with 1,037.

SERIES HISTORY: Pittsburgh leads West Virginia, 61-39-3 (last meeting in 2010, WVU, 35-10).

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: One of the big keys to this game could be whether or not WVU can run the ball well enough to take some of the heat off QB Geno Smith. The Mountaineers were pressured hard by Cincinnati last time out and could do nothing about it as they rushed for only 35 yards on 35 carries. The passing offense is among the nation's best, with QB Geno Smith needing just 111 yards to break Marc Bulger's single season passing yardage record of 3,607 yards. WR Stedman Bailey has already broken the school record for most receiving yards in a season with 1,037. The offensive line, however, has not done a good job of run blocking all season and last game against Cincinnati gave up five sacks even though it was mostly a three-man pass rush.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The defense has been under fire for much of the season but generally it has performed adequately, although below the level WVU normally achieves. A year ago it allowed only 85 yards a game while teams are gaining more than 135 a game. The key to this game may be whether or not WVU will be able to pressure Pitt QB Tino Sunseri, considering that the Panthers great running back Ray Graham is out for the year with a knee injury. Look for a lot of blitzes, especially if the Panthers are doubling up on the prime pass rusher, DE Bruce Irvin. CB Keith Tandy is an All-Big East corner and most teams go away from him and throw at Pat Miller or Broderick Jenkins.

SPECIAL TEAMS: WVU's special teams have been strange this season. In Tavon Austin they have one of the most dangerous kickoff and punt returners in the land but their own kickoff and punt teams have struggled terrible, ranking No. 105 in net punting and No. 102 in kickoff coverage. PK Tyler Bitancurt was solid early in the year but has been missing some easy stuff over the past three games while P Mike Molanari has been completely inconsistent.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't think it's going to be the last game. It might be the last game for a couple years. But I feel confident that some point in the future, Pitt and West Virginia will be playing the Backyard Brawl." -- WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on the future of the Backyard Brawl with WVU going to the Big 12 and Pitt to the ACC.

THIS WEEK'S GAME: Pittsburgh at West Virginia, Nov. 25 -- The one thing West Virginia never runs out of is a reason to beat Pittsburgh. The Backyard Brawl is one of the prime rivalries in the country and that means you just don't forget. The Mountaineers are still out to avenge the 2007 upset sprung by Pitt, 13-9, that kept WVU out of the national championship game. This will be the 104th renewal of a rivalry that dates back to 1895 and with the new conference alignment the game could be an endangered species. Pitt has won 61 and WVU 39 with 3 ties but the Mountaineers have taken 6 of the last 11, including the last two. The game also renews a personal rivalry between WVU coach Dana Holgorsen and Todd Graham of Pitt, who met when Holgorsen was at Houston and Oklahoma State and Graham at Tulsa, the two being strongly at odds with each other. Holgorsen once piled it on to the tune of a 70-30 score.

KEYS TO THE GAME: Offensively, if WVU can establish a running game with either its small backs like Dustin Garrison, Andrew Buie or Vernard Roberts or with big back Shawne Alston, it can take a lot of pressure of the offensive line in blocking for QB Geno Smith. Smith's job has been to get the ball in the hands of WRs Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, each a home run threat and among the conference's top receivers. Defensively WVU needs to stop the Panther running game, which was hurt when RB Ray Graham suffered a season-ending knee injury. If WVU can make QB Tino Sunseri try to beat them alone, they have a huge advantage. Special teams play has to improve if the Mountaineers are to win a close game.

QB Geno Smith -- A junior, Smith has developed into a star under Coach Dana Holgorsen, sitting on the verge of breaking former Pro Bowl QB Marc Bulger's single-season record while throwing 24 TD and just 5 interceptions. Smith is adept at finding the right receiver and already has teamed up with former high school teammate WR Stedman Bailey for a school single-season record 1,037 yards and 10 touchdowns. He uses SR Tavon Austin on reverses and short passes, allowing him to use his running ability to break long gains.

SR Tavon Austin -- Austin is probably the most dangerous player in the Big East, a sure-handed, slithery slot receiver who doubles as a punt returner and triples as a kickoff returner. Austin leads the Mountaineers with 72 catches and needs 96 yards to become the second 1,000-yard receiver on the team. He also leads the Big East in punt returns at 14.8 per return with a long of 64 and in kickoff returns at 25.2 yards with a touchdown.

DE Bruce Irvin -- Perhaps the key player in the game is Irvin, whose pressure from the defensive end position is necessary to help cover a secondary that hasn't been as strong as expected. Irvin made the key play against Cincinnati, sacking QB Zach Collaros at his own 1, causing a fumble that was recovered by DE Julian Miller in the end zone. Collaros suffered a broken ankle on the play. Irvin had 14 sacks last year and has 5.5 this season.

--Dangerous WR Brad Starks, who has four TD pass receptions in limited playing time, is expected to miss the game with an injury. He has been injured on and off all season.

--RB Matt Lindamood has played most of the season with an injured neck that causes painful stingers and burners and for his right arm to go numb when hit a certain way. He thought earlier in the year that his career might be over but he received strengthening exercises and a neck roll and back plate to limit the motion when he was hit.

Panther Digest Top Stories