Mountaineers Prepare For Panthers

West Virginia will try to overcome their third critical player loss of the year with more shuffling, this time along the defensive line.

"Jason Hardee will play a lot, and Pat Liebig will play a good bit more," head coach Rich Rodriguez said of the immediate plans to replace Fred Blueford, who suffered a career ending ACL injury on the concrete turf at Boston College. "We were kind of thin to begin with. We don't like to play those guys 60-70 snaps. But those guys, Ben Lynch, Hardee and Ernest Hunter will probably have to do more."

Rodriguez also noted that Warren Young, who has been been improving in recent weeks, could be called upon as well, but that he must show he's ready in practice this week. Craig Wilson, who has been seeing duty at nose guard, could also see his time increased as the Mountaineers look to fashion a rotation to fill in for the steady senior.

Looking at the Panthers, Rodriguez noted that "they do a few more things in the passing game and in their route packages" this year. In large part, that is due to the veterans the Panthers possess at the skill positions, and the experience they have gained over the past couple of seasons.

On defense, Pitt has been inconsistent, but Rodriguez is impressed with their effort.

"They have a good scheme and play hard, and seem to be knowledgeable for what their strengths and weaknesses are," the Mountaineer mentor noted. "They are doing a few different things, and showing a few more wrinkles. They have shown some different fronts and are changing things up with their linebackers."

Against the run, the Panthers have been shaky, so the Mountaineer coaching staff has been looking at a lot of video cutups to determine what from the WVU attack has the best chance of succeeding against the league leaders.

"We are trying to figure out best formation to run against Pittsburgh. We do have a little bit of an advantage in that this late in the season, they have faced a lot of different offensive sets, so we have more tape to look at," Rodriguez explained.

RIFLE REPORTS

Of course, most discussions about the Panthers begin with one player - Heisman Trophy hopeful Larry Fitzgerald.

"Fitzgerald will make plays," Rodriguez said with resignation. "He just has great ball skills and a great feel for the game. He's mature beyond his years, and he doesn't get frustrated when he's double-covered, like he has been so much this year. We must try to get pressure on the quarterback so they don't have as much time to find him, but that's something we've had a hard time with all year."

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Rodriguez noted that while the performance of his team left a lot to be desired, the fact that they defeated Boston College while playing poorly is a plus.

"I don't want to say we didn't deserve to win, but we just didn't play well. But if you do that and still win, that says something."

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Pitt is getting a great deal of attention for closing their practices this week, but Rodriguez hasn't put much thought into what, if anything, that means.

"I don't read a whole lot into that. Each coach will make decisions based on what's best for their team. I like getting into a routine. But if you keep winning, each game becomes bigger. That's happened to us the last couple of weeks, and it's happened to Pitt. Our guys understand how important the Pitt game is every year, regardless of record."

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As has been the case time and again this year, questions arose concerning the future of the Big East. This week, it was viewed as a battle for supremacy among "the remainders", as Rodriguez terms the teams staying in the conference.

"The winner of this game can't lay claim to any future of the Big East," Rodriguez noted as he stayed true to his mantra of coaching one play and one game at a time. "I'm worried about Saturday night, not next year or the year after."

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Rodriguez doesn't think that one play can be the turning point for a season, but does believe that his players took some confidence away from their loss to Miami.

"I don't think Quincy Wilson's pass was a turning factor in the season. Even if he doesn't make that play, our guys competed at a higher level. Was Miami the turning point? I think it helped. It helped our players believe in what we are doing. But you still have to do it every week."

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West Virginia has made a living off turnovers the past two seasons, but Rodriguez believes that Pitt's experience will help them in the turnover battle.

"It will be harder to get Pitt to turn the ball over this year. They are more experienced, and when your skill guys are more experienced they don't turn the ball over as much. We won last weekend because of turnovers. Last year that was the difference in the Pitt game, and this Saturday night it will probably be the same situation.

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In one of the stranger questions of the session, Rodriguez was asked if he thinks the Big East Office is rooting for WVU or Pitt.

"I hope they are impartial," Rodriguez said with a smile. "If we were playing the defectors, I'd hope they'd be rooting for one of the remainders. But I expect they will be very professional."

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Rodriguez views one of his jobs as making sure players from outside the region understand the importance of this week's contest.

"I think players that didn't grow up here still understand the rivalry. You hope they appreciate and understand that. That's part of our job as coaches, to make sure they understand the Backyard Brawl and that it's fun to be a part of. Your rivalry games are always important. For us, those games are Tech and Pitt."

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On the injury front, Rasheed Marshall and Quincy Wilson were both in green limited contact jerseys on Monday, but are expected to play. Jeff Berk will work a bit more today as well. His time is being limited by the coaching staff, but it is hoped that his turf toe injury will be well enough to allow him to play on Saturday. The Mountaineers have been cutting back physical work on Wednesdays the past couple of weeks, so tonight's drills will be the last of the big full contact sessions before the game.


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