Match-Ups: West Virginia - Pitt

While the battles in the trenches will be big, there are some other face-offs that figure to weigh heavily in the Backyard Brawl Game Scorecard
Fri 11/26/10 12:00 PM

Pittsburgh, PA

Heinz Field
Record: 7-3
Last Game
Louisville W 17-10
Radio: MSN
Record: 6-4
Last Game
USF W 17-10
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Series: Pitt 38-61-3
First Meeting: 1895
Last Meeting: 2009
Press Release
Season Stats
2010 Schedule

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WVU cornerbacks Keith Tandy and Brandon Hogan vs. Pitt wide receivers Mike Shanahan and Jon Baldwin

Corners are in the brightest of spotlights when it comes to pass defense, and often get the blame for allowing completions even when they aren't at fault. However, that doesn't take any of the importance off this confrontation, as it's the most critical one outside of the battle in the trenches.

While Baldwin gets the lion's share of notice from the media, Shanahan is probably just as important to the Pitt offense. He routinely comes up with drive-extending catches, and is something of a safety net for Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri. His performance, along with the big plays that Baldwin records, gives the Panthers balance, as they are able to attack both sides of the field. That keeps defenses honest, as coverages can't shade toward one side to give help. Do that, and the other Panther is likely to exploit that tactic for some big catches.

WVU's smaller corners will be at a distinct physical disadvantage against the pair. Both stand six feet, five inches, and are north of 220 pounds. That doesn't mean the Mountaineers will back down, of course. Tandy has blown up opponents with big hits in each of the past two games, and Hogan isn't shy about hitting either. However, it won't be a surprise to see Pitt try some back shoulder throws and jump balls to allow their receivers to use their height and size to the best advantage.

This match-up will also involve Robert Sands, who patrols the back end of the WVU defense on running downs. Look for Pitt to work play-action passes, a staple of their attack, on early downs to try to catch the aggressive Sands out of position. He will have to be at his field-ranging best in order to help prevent the Panthers from having success downfield.

WVU offensive scheme vs. Pitt strong safety Dom DeCicco

While the Panther front seven gets lots of deserved notoriety, DeCicco is a player that the Mountaineers must account for in both the running and passing game – and that makes him a key player to watch when WVU has the ball.

Geno Smith
DeCicco is the quarterback of the back end of the Pitt defense, and he's a physical player that always seems to be around the ball. He has interceptions, pass breakups, forced fumbles and tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and leads the Panthers in total stops. Having a safety as a leading tackler can be a sign of some problems up front, but that's not the case here, because DeCicco plays as a linebacker against certain offensive schemes. He's a solid tackler that's tough against the run, and a very good pass defender with the size and strength to combat any receiver.

West Virginia will try to use its speed against DeCicco, but that's nothing he hasn't seen before. WVU might revert to some of the crossing patterns to its slot receivers in order to get them moving at full speed, but that requires good timing and pass blocking, which the Panthers figure to be primed to disrupt. Fooling the veteran DeCicco won't be easy, either, as he's an experienced player who doesn't bite on many deceptive tactics. WVU quarterback Geno Smith will likely be keying on DeCicco's location on just about every WVU play, and he'll be involved in a cat and mouse game of deception with the Pitt defender throughout the contest.

Look for WVU to attack the perimeter in an attempt to get DeCicco moving laterally, then perhaps try to isolate him with a deep route or two later in the game. Whatever the tactics, however, it's going to be a difficult task. West Virginia has to figure out a way to hit a big play or two in order to get a win, but to do so, it's going to have to get past one of the savviest defenders in the league.


The battle of the lines is always important, but the way in which those two confrontations play out will be even more critical in the Backyard Brawl. Both teams have outstanding defensive fronts that are able to generate pressure, make tackles in the backfield and disrupt opposing offenses. How will the opposing offensive lines deal with that?

West Virginia has had trouble with blitzing opponents this year, but Pitt seldom employs that tactic. It has been able to get sacks with its basic four-man rush, and if WVU can't deal with that with its five offensive linemen, then the Mountaineers figure to have trouble in the passing game. If they have to keep an extra protector or two in to help pass block, that means fewer receivers in the pattern – and fewer threats for the seven Pitt defenders in pass coverage to guard. WVU isn't likely to make much happen through the air in those circumstances, so it will be instructive early on to see how much penetration the Panthers can generate up front.

On the flip side, WVU is a blitzing team, but it does so as part of its scheme just to get four rushers across the line. Look for Pitt, as most teams have, to work the tight end in resulting gaps in the coverage – assuming that it, too, can protect against WVU's zone blitz schemes with base protection. While that position has had success against WVU, it hasn't been nearly enough to consistently generate points against the stingy Mountaineer defense.

* * *

Which quarterback can control the game and make the big play when it presents itself? In a game that figures to be controlled by the defenses, this bit of spotlight on the offensive side of the ball could have a big effect on the final score.

WVU quarterback Geno Smith has the ability, as all Mountaineer fans know, to make big throws in big situations. He's not afraid to fit the ball into small areas, and doesn't hesitate when faced with challenging third down plays. Give just a bit of time, he can stand in the pocket and hit receivers anywhere on the field. Can he do so in the pressure-cooker environment of Heinz Field?

On the other side, Pitt's Tino Sunseri has improved as the season has progressed, but he probably hasn't gotten the notice for it he deserves. After a four-game start in which he completed 63% of his passes for just 172 yards per game, he recorded a six-game stretch in which his completion percentage rose to 69% and his yardage to 224 markers per outing. Granted, those aren't all-American numbers, but they do illustrate his ability to run the offense.

Both quarterbacks have heard the phrases all year. "Manage the game." "Don't beat yourself." But in this contest, might the win go to the team with the QB that dares to make the big play? It will be interesting to see whether the defensive styles of both squads filter all the way to the quarterback position -- or if either offensive coordinator is allowed to open things up a bit.

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Pitt's use of its two excellent running backs bears watching. Last year's star, Dion Lewis, has seen a number of his potential carries go to Ray Graham, but with the productivity his sometime understudy has provided, there hasn't been much cause for grumbling. Graham, still riding the huge statistical numbers he recorded against Florida International, when he rushed for 277 yards on 29 carries, has rushed for 143 more yards than his backfield mate. That hasn't stopped Lewis, since returned from injury, from reclaiming his starting spot, however. Both will play. The question is, how do they get used in the game?

If one gets off to a hot start, will he continue getting the ball? Or will the Panthers continue to rotate them in as they have done in recent games? Graham might seem to be a bit more suited to the soft, sandy playing surface of Heinz Field, but it's not like Lewis hasn't been productive at home during his career. Wherever the ball goes, Pitt has the ability to score in its running game – and that bumps squarely up against a Mountaineer defense that has yielded just three rushing touchdowns all year. Which will prevail? Answer that question, and the winner of the Backyard Brawl will be revealed.

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