WVU - Pitt Matchups

There might be a few individual matchups worth looking at in Thursday night's WVU-Pitt game, but they will all be dwarfed by an overriding team characteristic that will determine the winner of the 97th edition of the Backyard Brawl.


WVU Team Chemistry vs. Pitt Team Chemistry

More than any other contest in recent memory, this year's game will hinge upon the respective outlooks and emotions of the squads when the take the field on Thanksgiving night. I don't mean to go all New Age on you, and I'm not going to bust out a Deepak Chopra theme, but it's hard to shake the notion that this year's game is going to be won or lost before either team sets foot on the turf.

For Pitt, things look good, Beating Notre Dame on the road will help anyone's outlook, of course, and the Panthers did just that ten days ago while the Mountaineers were coughing up a hairball against Boston College. Pitt also has a hot quarterback going for them, as Tyler Palko has completed 81 of 127 passes for 994 yards and 11 touchdowns, against just one interception, in his last three games. Having a quarterback make plays is a huge boost for the mental outlook of the offense, as West Virginia can attest. And Palko, after a fugly start in which he threw for just 49 yards on six completions in 19 attempts, surely has momentum on his side.

There's also something to be said for rallying from a rocky start as a team to put on a late season rush. Again, the Mountaineers are the perfect example, having twice resurrected themselves from bad beginnings in the last two years to sweep through November and secure bowl berths. Pitt, having won four of its last five, is no doubt contemplating just such a run this year.

It doesn't seem to matter what the records are, either. WVU should still be riding a solid wave of confidence and enthusiasm, sporting as they are an 8-2 record and holding the inside track to a New Year's Day bowl game. However, they have the feel of the underdog in this contest, while Pitt, sitting at 6-3, seems to be in the top dog position.

Game Info
WVU 8-2, 4-1
Pitt 6-3, 3-2
Thurs 11/25 8:00 pm
Heinz Field
Series: Pitt leads 58-35-3
BCS: WVU-23 BC-31
Line: WVU -4
Stats & Trends
Flip over to the West Virginia side, and it seems to be quieter than a nursery in a retirement home. The Mountaineers' loss to Boston College was greeted with howls of derision from fans and media alike. The gnashing of teeth and rending of garments has extended far longer than it should, and there' no doubt that such an air of negativity can affect a team's play. And just when it seemed like the focus was finally turning to Pitt, the news broke that wide receiver Chris Henry would not play against the Panthers for the dreaded "violation of team rules".

Henry's loss could be a dagger blow to WVU's hopes, because he is the Mountaineer passing attack. Not part of it – he is it. Without him, does anyone have hopes of the Mountaineers topping 150 yards passing? 125? 100?

That's not to say that West Virginia can't win this game. The Mountaineers have Rasheed Marshall, one of the most underrated players in WVU history. They have an offensive line, that while apparently beset with strife, continues paving the way for 250-yard rushing performances. And they possess a defense that scraps, scratches and claws no matter what the situation.

To me, it's pretty simple. If West Virginia can put all of the garbage of the last 12 days behind it, then the Mountaineers have a good chance of taking home their third straight Brawl. But if all those negative waves are still floating around, the visitors in Gold and Blue might just as well not get off the bus.


West Virginia has been practicing very hard this week. Will the Mountaineers have enough legs left for what figures to be a very emotional contest? Overwork and dead legs have been repeatedly cited as one of the reasons for the poor performance in last year's Gator Bowl – so hopefully WVU isn't too beaten up from several intense practice sessions.

Watch WVU's pursuit speed – especially in the second half. If they are slowing down, it could be a long night at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela.

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With the suspension of Chris Henry, many strategists are saying that all Pitt has to do to win is load up the box with eight or nine players and stop the run, which will make a Panther win a foregone conclusion. It sounds nice, but it's not that simple.

First, it's not as if teams haven't been loading up against WVU the past two seasons. Even facing those stacked fronts, WVU has still managed to run the ball very effectively (unless you don't think that 258 yards per game, good for fifth in the country, is effective).

WVU has a couple of strategies for dealing with bunched fronts, including sealing off the edge and running wide, which have worked well throughout the season. Also, teams that consistently crowd the line risk seeing a running back pop through the front and seeing nothing but daylight (or, in this case, darkness) in front of him.

If the Panthers do load up, watch West Virginia's blocking schemes, especially on plays to the outside. It's interesting stuff, and can demonstrate how the Mountaineers have been able to run against teams that know the run is coming.

* * *

If you want a statistic to eyeball during the game, WVU's third down conversion rate might be the metric to monitor. The Mountaineers must sustain some drives to keep Pitt's surging offense on the sidelines as well as to wear down the Panther defense.

It's not going to be an easy task, though. Pitt leads the conference in third-down conversion defense, allowing a success rate of just 31.4%. WVU, while hardly stellar in this area, has managed a 36% success rate on the season. If the Mountaineers can push that rate above 40%, they will significantly increase their chances of winning.

The news is even worse on fourth down, where Pitt has yielded just five first downs in 15 attempts. Hopefully for WVU, it won't come to that.

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