Backyard Brawl Games Can Make History

Pitt football coach Dave Wannstedt said he remembers all the big games he's coached or played in over the last three decades or so, national championship games for Pitt and Miami, Fla., NFL playoff games and Super Bowls and rivalry games like the Panthers' contest at West Virginia Dec. 1, 2007.

And when Pittsburgh (7-3, 3-2) and West Virginia (7-3, 3-1) meet in the 101st edition of the annual Backyard Brawl Friday at noon at Heinz Field with a national broadcast by ABC-TV, it could be just as memorable.

"The big games that you've coached in and had a chance to participate in, this rivalry would fall into those categories,'' Wannstedt said. "The excitement of this rivalry never really left me.

"I'd come back here in the summers before I was coaching here, and I'd be someplace with a bunch of buddies and the stories what would come up would always be about West Virginia, Penn State and Notre Dame games. Those are the games that people talk about as ex-players and alums.''

For Pitt last year, a 13-9 win ended a disappointing 5-7 season with a bang and propelled the Panthers to a excellent recruiting stretch and terrific offseason. For then the then No. 2 Mountaineers and their fans, national title hopes were dashed and plans to attend the BCS title game were thwarted.

Pitt and WVU fans were discussing that game throughout the offseason and even into this one. The Panthers eventually moved on when the season began, but the Mountaineers probably have been gunning for this week's game the minute the previous one ended. Wannstedt offered his opinion.

"I think that win was important for two reasons, and it was probably a negative for one,'' Wannstedt said. "The two positives were that it really jump-started us into a great recruiting season. Not that we recruited any new players, but we had a half-dozen or so players who were right on the fence.

"That win gave them the push to say ... in their hearts, they wanted to be here at Pitt, and that reaffirmed it for them. The second positive was that it jump-started our players and coaches into the off-season program. It gave us something to start climbing those hills over at Flagstaff. From a player's standpoint it was getting into the weight room to do the extra work.

"Probably the only negative was that it went on way too long,'' Wannstedt added. "Our players and coaches were still being asked questions about that game in training camp. And it propelled us into the national rankings, which we didn't deserve to start the season. I think we've evolved into a pretty good football team (now), but at that point in the season and coming off five wins ... being ranked in the top 25, that made no sense to me.''

Since Cincinnati beat Pitt last week, the Bearcats are in the driver's seat for the Big East title. Pitt and West Virginia are playing for second place in the Conference and seeding for bowl bids. There are still things to accomplish, however, especially for fifth-year senior middle linebacker Scott McKillop.

"We were 5-7 last season, but we beat West Virginia the last game,'' McKillop said. "That kind of erased everything we did bad during the season since we beat West Virginia. ... It's just as big a game this season. National Television and my last game at Heinz Field, I couldn't ask for anything more.

"I don't know if they'll say it, but I know that they've been gunning for us all season. ... As a player, we ruined their season last year, a lot of fans' dreams of playing in a national championship game, so they're going to be pumped for us. I'm 2-2 against West Virginia, so I'd like to go out 3-2.

"It's a short week, our second rivalry game in a row,'' McKillop added. "We had 24 hours to stew about Cincinnati, and now we have to get past it. We have to focus on West Virginia. They're a great team. (And) if we don't play our game, it could get ugly. It's another test for our defense, and we have to be ready.''

Pitt redshirt junior defensive tackle Gus Mustakas didn't get a chance to play in last year's fray due to a midseason knee injury, so he also has been champing at the bit to get on the field against the Mountaineers.

"I was on the sideline,'' Mustakas said. "I really wanted to be part of it, but I couldn't. So, I really want to beat them this year. I'm still winless against West Virginia in my career, so this is a big game for me in that regard.

"I'm still 0-2, as far as I'm concerned. And the first two times they beat us really bad, my freshman and sophomore years, so I really want this one. And that what makes it a big game for me.''

Sophomore defensive end Jabaal Sheard was unaware about the Backyard Brawl when he arrived at Pitt two summers ago.

"I come from Florida, and I was real surprised about how big of a game it is and what goes on here with the West Virginia game,'' Sheard said. "I didn't know how much energy it takes just to play in a game like this.

"You really have to be hyped to play in this game, and you really need a lot of enthusiasm just to prepare for West Virginia. It's a big game, so we need to get back on the field and try to get better this week to get ready for them.''

Wannstedt noted that every player on Pitt's roster made the trip to Morgantown, W.Va. last year for the game. Even the freshmen who were redshirting and don't normally travel got a bus ride that day to be on the sideline for the 100th Backyard Brawl.

"That was awesome for the younger guys to experience that,'' senior center C.J. Davis said. "The atmosphere down there, to experience that was special. So, they definitely know what's at hand when we play West Virginia. And we all know what they're coming here to do and what we need to do to get a W.

"As players, we don't really talk about the West Virginia game all the time, but everybody else wants to bring it up. Last year's game, that's all anybody talked about all winter and summer and even into fall camp.

"Our freshmen know who our rivals are,'' Davis added. "Our big rivals are Notre Dame and Penn State, but we play West Virginia every year. So, they definitely know that game is circled on the calendar. It's the big one.''

And this season's game Friday at noon at Heinz Field has a chance to be just as memorable as last year.

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