Backyard Brawl Preview

The University of Pittsburgh football team (6-4) is currently on a downhill slide after losing three consecutive Big East games. Head Coach Dave Wannstedt and his Panthers have little time to lick their wounds with mighty West Virginia (8-1) invading Heinz Field today for the latest edition of the "Backyard Brawl". Senior Writer Dale Grdnic previews the big game.

PITTSBURGH -- The numbers are staggering in every aspect and have not gone unnoticed by the University of Pittsburgh's football team.

West Virginia (8-1, 3-1), which visits Heinz Field for a 7:30 game tonight against Pitt (6-4, 2-3), averages nearly 320 rushing yards per game and almost seven per carry with 38 touchdowns. Quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton have accounted for nearly every yard and score, and the Panthers must at least slow them down to have a chance.

However, this is the 99th version of the Backyard Brawl, and anything can happen when these two teams get together.

"West Virginia is going to get you into situations where you've got to make one-on-one tackles, and you've got to make those open-field tackles,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "They've got a nice variety of plays.

"They can do a lot. ... And we're playing one of the best teams in the country. But we're worried about ourselves and just trying to get win No. 7, and there's plenty of motivation, just because it's West Virginia.''

Slaton has been compared to Tony Dorsett because of his running style, speed and size, but the former Pitt legend was a Heisman Trophy winner and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So, Wannstedt believed it was unfair to compare a second-year college player with Dorsett. Slaton has 1,363 yards rushing, a 7.5-yard average and 12 touchdowns.

"Basically, we just have to finish plays,'' junior cornerback Darrelle Revis said. "When we have a guy wrapped up, we've got to gang tackle and put him on the ground. Pat White, I've been watching him all year. He's one of the best running quarterbacks I've seen, and we've just got to contain him, box him in and so he can't go where he wants to go.

"We just have to get a hat on some guys, gang tackle and go to the ball. That's the way to go. Coach always remind us with pursuit drills every week and have a passion for it. We need to go after them and get the guys down. This is the Backyard Brawl. There's going to be passion and rage, fire and intensity. And I know we'll be ready to play.''

Wannstedt likened White to former Oklahoma quarterback J.C. Watts and Notre Dame signal-caller Tony Rice. Both were option quarterbacks, he noted, that were also outstanding athletes. White has accounted for nearly 2,000 total yards, 837 rushing and 1,142 passing, with 15 rushing scores and seven passing. He averages 7.9-yards per carry, nearly 67 percent passing and has five interceptions.

If White throws the ball, he usually hooks up with Darius Reynaud or Brandon Myles. Reynaud has 31 catches and two scores, while Myles has 19 and four. Slaton also can catch the ball out of the backfield.

"Football is a game of angles, and we have to cut them down on those guys,'' Revis said. "We can box them in and keep them inside, not let them get outside onto the edge of our defense and run down the sideline.

"A short run can turn into a 60-, 70- or 80-yard touchdown run with those guys if we aren't able to do that. And we have something else prepared for them, trust me. We're not going to let them run wild on us like last year. We remember that game very well.''

What Pitt should recall is its game against a powerful WVU squad at Heinz Field. The game conditions were sloppy due to the weather, and they could be just as poor tonight. This would favor the Panthers, because WVU has more team speed and will be easier to contain on a slow surface.

On the other hand, Pitt's offense could run its controlled passing game and power running attack against WVU's defense. The Mountaineers rank in the lower echelon in the Big East on defense, especially passing, where they allow more than 215 yards per game. But Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko believed the defensive stats were an aberration.

"West Virginia is a great team on defense,'' Palko said. "They have such a superior offense that they don't get enough credit for how well they play defense. ... They have a ton of athletes on the field, three big guys up front to clog things up and eight great athletes behind them.

"I think they're ranked (low) because they score so many points. When you get up on a team by 25-30 points, you're playing prevent defense and just waiting back there. You let them throw the ball downfield and get some stats. They just had stats put up on them after they put games away.''

Notes: Junior TE Darrell Strong (suspension) and redshirt junior DE Chris McKillop (knee) are the only Pitt players out for this game. ... Frosh Dorin Dickerson played White for Pitt's scout team all week.

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