Match-Ups: WVU - Pitt

Offensive schemes, and they way they have morphed during the season, are in the spotlight of this year's Backyard Brawl.

BlueGoldNews.com Game Scorecard
Fri 11/25/11 7:00 PM

Morgantown, WV

Mountaineer Field
Record: 7-3
BCS: 26
Last Game
Cincinnati W 24-21
TV: ABC
Sirius\XM: 91
Web: BlueGoldNews.com
Record: 5-5
BCS: NR
Last Game
Louisville W 21-14
Roster
Press Release
Season Stats
2011 Schedule

Series: Pitt 61-39-3
First Meeting: 1895
Last Meeting: 2010
Roster
Press Release
Season Stats
2011 Schedule

Click for Morgantown, West Virginia Forecast


MATCH-UPS AND STORYLINES

OFFENSIVE PACE

The head coaches of both teams want their offenses to get to the line and snap the ball quickly. At Pitt, the buzzword is "high octane". At West Virginia, it's "Play Smart. Play Hard. Play Fast." Neither, though, has been entirely descriptive of the attacks fielded by the Mountaineers and Panthers this year. So, what should we be watching for when the teams collide for the 104th time this Friday?

Both coaches have admitted that the full furies of their offensive systems have yet to be unleashed. Pitt head coach Todd Graham slowed the pace of his troops over the past couple of weeks, and believes that he saw benefits of that move in the Panthers' 21-14 win over Louisville. Similarly, WVU's Dana Holgorsen has noted that he has removed some aspects of his offense and reined in the pace of play as well. The results have still been mixed, as West Virginia's offensive output has actually declined in terms of points in recent games. Overall, though, the Mountaineers have been much more productive on offense than the Panthers.

A look at the numbers reveals that while each team has increased its pace of play over previous seasons, those total haven't reached the level desired by the coaches. Pitt is averaging 73.1 offensive plays per game, while WVU is snapping it 74.3 times per contest.

Can we expect to see a marked increase in the pace of play this week? Probably not. While both coaches may try to speed things up at times, especially when they perceive an advantage in going against the defensive personnel that are on the field, it's more likely that both will stick to their plans going in – to emphasize what they do well, and t o make sure that a rapid pace doesn't add inefficiency to the mix. The coach that will be able to best execute that plan – one that doesn't match what he would really like to do – will be the one that grabs the win.


WVU Offensive Tackles Don Barclay and Pat Eger vs. Pitt Defensive End Aaron Donald

Although he has just two starts on the season, Donald has emerged as a force on the Panther defensive front, and is poised to wreak havoc against the Mountaineer passing attack.



Don Barclay
Donald, despite being employed as a backup for much of the season, has compiled impressive statistics on the rebuilt Pitt defensive front. He has accounted for nine sacks (#7 nationally) and 12.5 tackles for loss, and also counts 13 other pass disruptions (three breakups and ten quarterback hits) on his resume. He has 33 total stops (second best on a defensive front that has been the anchor of the defense) and forces opponents to acknowledge his position and account for him on every pass play. Teamed with Chas Alecxih on the inside, Donald has allowed Pitt's defense against the pass to markedly improve over the past month.

For West Virginia, the task is a straightforward, if not a simple, one. It must protect Geno Smith and allow WVU's deeper routes time to develop. The Mountaineers have been maddeningly inconsistent in pass protection this year, showing up very well in some games, such as LSU, but being pushed around in others, such as last week's Cincinnati contest. Schemes may have played a part in some of those performances, but this one will come down to a test of wills. Pitt will grind away in the trenches and try to collapse the pocket on Smith, much as the Bearcats did a week ago. West Virginia will have to respond to the challenges laid down on it by the coaching staff over the past off week, and give Smith time to find receivers.

The Mountaineers will also have to be aware of blitzes, as the Panthers bring rushers from different positions and depths out of its base 3-4 look. In that, it will have to employ the lessons it learned against Syracuse, when it was snowed under by a number of different blitz packages. In a way, this is something of a graduate level exam for the offensive front. Can it stand its ground and not get pushed back, and can it play with good recognition and pick up extra rushers?

Obviously, not all of this is on the line itself. Smith must get rid of the ball when more rushers than blockers are present, and not get caught trying to go downfield when the numbers aren't there. However, it starts with the line, and this is the chance for the Mountaineer front to show what it has learned, and what it can do.


THINGS TO WATCH

Third down conversions are always important, but in this game they might have heightened significance. West Virginia has turned 43% of those situations into first downs this year, and there's no doubt that is one of the building blocks of success in Holgorsen's offense. Pitt, on the other hand, has improved steadily this year, and now leads the Big East in third down defense, giving up first downs on just 32% of opponents' tries.

This is clearly a strength vs. strength confrontation, and the team which achieves closer to its normal success rate will have a huge advantage in the game. For the Mountaineers, keeping drives going is paramount, and if it can do so it will likely pile up enough points to put the game out of reach, no matter what the Panthers do on offense. If, however, Pitt gets a couple of extra possessions and forces some three-and-outs, those extra chances will likely be enough to swing the game in its favor.

* * *

Much of the pregame analysis of the Brawl has focused on West Virginia's offense against Pitt's defense, but there are some interesting, and perhaps important, items to keep track of when the other units are on the field. Will Pitt, minus it's star runner and in an offense that's not exactly suited for it, try to employ a ball control strategy? Or will quarterback Tino Sunseri, who, according to Graham, had his best game of the year against Louisville, get more changes to wing the ball around?

On the other side, can West Virginia's run defense shut down the Panthers on the ground? Zach Brown has been respectable in replacing Graham, and freshman Isaac Bennett has averaged five yards per carry since dropping his redshirt, so it's not a given that the Mountaineers will automatically stymie the Pitt running game. Look for the Panthers to test WVU with the run – perhaps not early, but at some point – with a series of plays that probes for weaknesses all along the defensive front. The Mountaineers have been shaky at times in getting pursuit to the edge of the defense, and its cornerbacks have also had some problems in in getting off blocks and lending support, so it won't be a surprise to see Pitt try to pound the game out in the trenches.


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