Brawl For It All

There is a special feel in the Morgantown air, and it is not just the chilly temperatures that have made their way into the Mountain State.

There is an extra edge in the Puskar Center, as players and coaches have a little more bounce in their step and a few extra nerves with each day's practice. Pitt Week is finally underway.

Coaches are infamous for using clichés, and one of the most commonly used statements is "this is just another game." Mountaineer head coach Rich Rodriguez has used this one more than his share of times, but even Coach Rod cannot hide the fact that this game means a little more. Saturday brings about the 93rd edition of The Backyard Brawl, the historic rivalry between the WVU Mountaineers and the Pitt Panthers, and the buzz around this matchup is at an unparalleled level.

"I told the team, this is for first place in the Big East, it is on national television, it's a sold out Saturday night at home, but even if that wasn't there, this is Pitt," said Rodriguez. "It's the Backyard Brawl. For some of our young guys who have never been involved in this game, they are fixin' to find out just how big of a deal it is."

Rodriguez, who has preached all season that every win counts as just one, admits that the Pitt game takes on an extra importance to every Mountaineer fan, and the men who wear the old gold and blue on Saturdays need to understand its meaning.

"I don't want them to think this is the end all to be all, but I'd be lying to them if I said that this one is not the biggest one we have played to date," admitted Rodriguez. "My biggest thing is preparation. We can't just show up Saturday night and beat Pitt at 7:00 p.m.; we have to try to beat Pitt today, tomorrow, and through the week."

Rodriguez fully understands the meaning of the Backyard Brawl, having played in the contest himself as a walk-on defensive back for the Mountaineers.

"It was our biggest rivalry when I played here," remembered Coach Rod. "I think all of our border rivals are big, but because we are so close to Pitt, we compete against them in recruiting, a lot of our players know their players, our staff knows there staff, and all of that, this one takes on a little extra 'oomph'."

Rodriguez, who grew up in Grant Town, W. Va., has seen a number of games in this series, but for him, nothing compares to last season's win at Heinz Field.

"We were watching the clips of it this morning," said Rodriguez. "At the end of the fourth quarter, snow was coming down, it was cold, and it was a great football game that we were lucky to win at the end. It was certainly my most memorable one."

Rodriguez is not the only Mountaineer who understands what this rivalry is all about. Growing up in Weirton, Quincy Wilson has been around this series for most of his life and has seen some of the more exciting finishes that this series has produced.

"I remember the triple overtime game down here (1997) when Gonzalez was the quarterback (for Pitt)," said Quincy, reflecting on some of the great Brawls of the past. "I remember that game the most because that was when I was really starting to get into football. I was closer to Pitt than I was to West Virginia growing up. It is more of a rivalry game to me, because I have grown up around it. I know other players who have played in it, and it is time for me to have my history in the game now. It's a big game. This is the Backyard Brawl and you can throw the records out the door."

As if making his mark on this storied rivalry was not enough motivation for the senior running back, Wilson's sister has provided even more fuel to Quincy's fire.

"Their defensive back, Tyrone Gilliard, dates my sister, Chlyla, so I will be looking forward to seeing him on the field," said Wilson with a glow in his eyes. "Last year he lined up on the opposite side so I really didn't get a chance to hit him. This year he is on my side, so I get a chance to go after him."

Everyone has to pick a side in the Backyard Brawl, a decision that will be especially difficult for Chyla, who has been dating Gilliard for almost two years after meeting Pittsburgh's starting safety at the North-South game.

"I don't think I am talking to her this week," chuckled Quincy. "I don't know who she is rooting for, but if she was smart she would bet on her family."

The Mountaineers are not the only ones who are looking forward to the Saturday night battle. The game is just as important to West Virginia's northern neighbors, who have been waiting for this day to arrive since WVU's season ending 24-17 triumph last November in Pittsburgh. Head coach Walt Harris and the Pittsburgh staff has had the date of this year's Backyard Brawl posted in the weight room all season long as they have prepared for revenge.

"I'm sure they have had it circled," said Rodriguez. "They probably felt that they should have won last year's game. I'm sure they will come in ready to play and we will have to put up our best effort if we hope to get the win."

The game is still more than four days away, but the anticipation in Morgantown continues to build with every passing hour. Mountaineer fans everywhere are pulling out their gold and blue and uttering the familiar phrase that has resounded throughout the hills and valleys of the Mountain State for nearly a century. It's simple, direct, and to the point.


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