A Look Inside … The Backyard Brawl

This one might well mean a little more. The programs don't like each other, the head coaches have a developing rivalry, there's a Big East title still to be decided. And this is likely the last chance to land a blow before the Brawl bows out for a time.

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
Sirius\XM: 91
Web: BlueGoldNews.com
Record: 5-5
Last Game
Louisville W 21-14
Press Release
Season Stats
2011 Schedule

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

Click for Morgantown, West Virginia Forecast

It shapes up nicely, no? Home game, evening kick, tryptophan hangover extinguished. There's a plenty to praise about the 104th installment of the Backyard Brawl. And yet it seems like something is missing. Both teams have underachieved. Neither coach is thrilled with the offensive production. The defenses have lacked. Both sides have struggled with turnovers. There are, frankly, multiple issues with Pitt and West Virginia. Odds are, whichever can cover them well wins this one.

  • Leading off, and playing the role of hero and villain, the Mountaineer special teams. The struggles, the highs and lows, continued in the last game versus Cincinnati. A block begat a block, and WVU escaped with a three-point win in yet another lackadaisical outing. Whatever the issue, this contest should be close and rectifying the field goal protection is a must. The Mountaineers are giving up far too much of a push in the middle. The lengthy layoff between games gave the staff time to make adjustments, but at this juncture n the season, one wonders just how much can actually be done. The field goal unit just isn't very good, and frankly the team probably shouldn't rely on them to make much of anything, let alone a kick into the wind in a late game situation. By now, Holgorsen has to realize what a liability the line is, and must make better in-game decisions versus the Panthers. There's no question WVU's last attempt against Cincinnati should never have been tried, and yet it gets passed off as a gut decision. That's not good enough, from either the team or staff.

    Other than that woeful area, and direction punting issues, the Mountaineers could manage at least a C grade. There have been a few strong returns, some flashed brilliance by Tavon Austin, and the kickoff coverage seems to have improved. One positive, from a purely match-up viewpoint, is that while Pitt has not had near the inconsistency of West Virginia, it also hasn't faired much better statistically or operating in key game moments.

      WVU Pitt
    Net Punt 33.7 yds 34.7 yds
    Punt Ret 13.2 yds 6.9 yds
    KO Ret 24.1 yds 20.5 yds
    The Panthers don't seem likely to be able to trot out any player with the home run abiloity of Austin, and Todd Graham has cautioned against the big play from both WVU's special teams and its offense. If the Mountaineers can hold blocks well, Austin could have some room the make plays.

  • Outside of the blocking – both up front and in the return game – and the fourth-and-field-position coaching decisions, the lone other significant issue is the aforementioned befuddling punt results. One kick is 50-plus yards, the next 12. One goes for 47, the next for 21 – while slicing out of bounds at an alarming angle. It's like what Bill Murray said to buddy Michael J. Fox during a golf round filmed for Fox's special on Parkinson's and optimism: "Playing with you is thrilling. I've never seen anybody hit it so well who can hit it so poorly. … Never seen anybody hit it with such power and not know where it was going."

    That's it in a nutshell. Holgorsen doesn't know where it's gonna go. Heck, Michael Molinari doesn't know where it's gonna go. How can the coverage units know where it's going? This is both scary and thrilling, and to a point already posed, doesn't give the staff much confidence in making any decisions. The unknowns are enormous. If one knew the punter could consistently rip off even a 35 yard kick, one could make a reasoned judgment. But this 36-feet, hit-the-water-boy stuff combined with a high, hanging 58-yarder just mystifies. I don't know the cure. I'm not sure I could adequately diagnose the cause. This is more than just a mishit. It's not physical. Mechanical? Mental? The oft-mentioned physiological? Perhaps, in the end, all Molinari and the staff can do is take the approach of Fox and make a decision and move forward: "Don't worry about doing the next thing right, do the next right thing."

  • Onto offense. The Mountaineers should move the ball here. There's enough playmakers and ability to beat a solid Pitt defense. Blocking will be paramount. Pitt brings pressure well, and rates fifth nationally with 3.2 sacks per game – and the vast majority of the pocket collapse comes from the front. WVU's line will be tested. The game essentially comes down to the trench battle on this side of the ball coupled with turnovers and special teams issues. Shore up the special teams and don't put the ball on the carpet or throw it to the wrong color, and the home team should be able to win this game. Geno Smith needs a bit of time to throw, and the worry here is he will again hold the ball far too long trying to make a play. Pitt's front will play well. The key is to maximize the down and distance situations won, and get protection at the imperative times.

  • Running game. Look for a few doses of Shawn Alston, and WVU isn't likely to be able to open holes sufficient enough for its smaller backs against the Panther line and ‘backers. This is a prime opportunity to bring in the big backs to pound as needed. Alston should get a handful of carries, pending game score and time – and if Smith is clicking with his wideouts.
    WVU O vs. Pitt D
      WVU Pitt
    Scoring 36.8 ppg 22.8 ppg
    Rushing 117.3 ypg 122.6 ypg
    Passing 362.1 ypg 233 ypg
    If the Mountaineers are routinely exploiting Pitt's secondary, and managing to do so with safe, crisp passes, then Alston's load should be reduced. But he will still get some totes to test the interior run defense, one which has allowed a decent, but not great, average of 136 yards versus league foes. West Virginia's Austin and quick-strike counterpart Dustin Garrison? As showcased in the Blue and Gold News print edition, the duo has averaged 5.3 yards per carry this season, and 97 yards per game. Not bad at all in an offense primed to pass.

  • Vertical threats. Because of the Pitt pressure, WVU might not be able to go to its deep ball well as often as it would like against a backfield allowing 233 pass yards per game (73rd in the nation). That means the short and intermediate game must be steady. The Mountaineers can't afford to get behind the sticks and have several three and outs in a row. Besides the lost snaps, possession and ability to clock and get rolling, any short drives give Pitt another chance to run additional time off the clock with its running game. Graham wants little more than to keep Holgorsen's attack off the field, and he will challenge the odd stack with quick hitters and power plays on the ground. Tick, tick, tick. This isn't Syracuse all over again, but the idea is similar. Sans the time to throw deep, the onus is definitely on the shorter passing game to keep chains moving and put some points on the board. Crossing patterns and screens will again be at the forefront, and yards after catch will be a big stat to eye. Check how many drops there are, and how much pressure it puts on the next down and yardage snap.

  • Defensively, the game planning is relatively easy. It's the execution that could be hard. Stop the run. Even with Pitt missing All-Big East back Ray Graham and a couple line starters, it still slugged Cincy for 179 yards and ground out a win versus Louisville. West Virginia must hold the point of attack, get to the ball well and tackle. It's the same old, same old, but this version of the odd stack has struggled with this for much of the season. It's unrealistic to expect the Mountaineers to totally shut Pitt down. But look at third downs. See how often WVU can manage to make enough plays on third and, say, four yards or greater, and actually get off the field. This could be the key stat of the game in giving the offense more chances and saving clock time and manageable field position.

    Jeff Casteel's unit must stay disciplined and play adequate assignment football. Pitt uses some misdirection and zone reads, but that's nothing this defense hasn't seen – it's just something it hasn't routinely practiced against in a year.

    WVU D vs. Pitt O
      WVU Pitt
    Scoring 26.8 ppg 25.6 ppg
    Rushing 135.9 ypg 158.1 ypg
    Passing 203.2 ypg 213.6 ypg
    Nice thing is, if tackles are made, the Panthers should not be able to rip off huge runs. Transfer Zach Brown, who took over the starting running back job after Graham's injury, isn't nearly as explosive. Pitt has become quite workmanlike in its running game, and that's something West Virginia can at least deal with decently.

  • Stop the big plays. This has been a trademark of the 3-3-5 for years until late. And still, even with the issues the defense has had this season, there have been many prolonged game periods in which the defense has played well, slowed the opposition and limited points and production. But then come the breakdowns. Quarterback Tino Sunseri isn't one to be able to complete long, slow drives with the pass alone. But he can hit plays vertically, and this must be slowed. Make Sunseri beat a defense consistently, not just once, and limit yards per completion.

    Pitt's protection has been an issue, and that normally bodes well for stopping vertical threats, but WVU can't finish when it finally does pressure the pocket. The Mountaineers have seldom got home on blitzes this season, and the pressure usually results in a quarterback escaping out the side and rolling to either throw the ball away, gain some yardage on the ground or take a calculated risk in finding a wideout coming back to the ball. Fewer routine down snaps for Bruce Irvin has helped, as the 2010 third down specialist has moved more into that role again as the season has progressed. That will probably continue in this game, and it helps that Sunseri isn't likely to scramble for significant yardage as did Cincinnati's Munchie Legaux. In a match-up highlighting perhaps more inconsistencies than not on both sides, the base ideals are primary: Get to the passer and protect from the long ball. The Mountaineers can deal with any rush yardage gained by Sunseri.

  • And last – its Senior Day. No other group of WVU players in the last 30 years has had to deal with the administrative and coaching changes and philosophical shifts as has this group. The fifth year seniors signed with Rich Rodriguez, were coached most of the time by Bill Stewart, and end their careers with Holgorsen. All three coaching approaches are vastly different, and there has been much turmoil and adaptation during their time in Morgantown.

    This five-year period on the field will be marked more by missed opportunities (sans Fiesta Bowl), by ties for Big East titles when there should have been outrights and additional BCS bowls and, in one instance, a berth in the national title game. By more bad losses (Pitt, Colorado, Connecticut, Syracuse twice, etc.) than major wins (Oklahoma, Pitt, a nice victory over a good North Carolina program). It's questionable exactly how much of this can be blamed on players. But certainly we should respect them for their effort and continued attempt at perseverance – and their program loyalty when many didn't show it – in the face of some reasonable obstacles. They deserve a solid, hearty cheer when running out of the tunnel for the last time as a player for West Virginia University. Thanks, Mountaineers.

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