Thu 11/24/05 8:00
Morgantown, W. Va.
BCS Rank: 11
UC 38-0 W
Rtn Lettermen: 41
Rtn Starters: 17
BCS Rank: 65
UConn 24-0 W
Rtn Lettermen: 48
Rtn Starters: 18
Last Meeting: 2004
MATCHUPS AND STORYLINES
WVU free safety Jahmile Addae vs. Pittsburgh quarterback Tyler Palko
Write it down. At least once per quarter, the Panthers will play action to LaRod Stephens-Howling and look to get deep behind Addae, who is one of WVU's most aggressive defenders. How Addae reacts to those traps will have a big impact on the game's outcome.
The Panthers know of Addae's aggressive run-support tactics, not to mention his penchant for getting the big hit on receivers running across his face. They will try to take advantage of those tendencies by putting out bait in the form of run fakes and mid range crossing patterns, in the hopes that Addae will bite and allow a deep receiver on a post pattern to get behind him for a big play.
In this, the final home game of Addae's career, he has to show the discipline to stay at home, in the deep regions of the defense, until the ball is committed in front of him. By doing so, he can keep Pitt's outside receivers, Greg Lee and Derek Kinder, from putting up big yards per catch numbers and giving the Panthers the big play spark they will need to knock off the Mountaineers.
WVU center Dan Mozes vs. Pittsburgh tackles Thomas Smith and Phil Tillman
Mozes, coming off an injury in the Cincinnati game, will likely be tested early as West Virginia finds out whether or not he is sufficiently healed to help power WVU's stout running game. Despite Pitt's struggles against the run, Smith and Thomas, both seniors, will provide a tough challenge as both teams try to establish dominance in the trenches.
All eyes will be on Mozes on West Virginia's first few series. Will he be able to fire out as effectively as he normally does? Will his mobility be affected? One of the reasons Mozes moved to center this year was his ability to get out to tackles and linebackers and make blocks -- if he is unable to do that, WVU's running game will suffer.
Also worth watching is how well he will be able to slide off double teams on one of the tackles and get to a linebacker as running plays develop. In addition to being an outstanding blocker on the initial hit, Mozes also excels at sliding to the second level and making another block to help spring running backs for even bigger gains.
WVU's revenge vs. Pittsburgh's spoilers
The Panthers are playing for their possible bowl lives, and also to knock WVU from its best shot at its second outright league title (and fourth overall) during its time in the Big East. The Mountaineers, as head coach Rich Rodriguez pointed out, have more at stake, including that league title and a trip to a BCS bowl that will be determined in December against South Florida. WVU is also looking for revenge from last year's game, which was played in the cow pasture also known as Heinz Field.
How will each team handle its varying motivations? That could be just as big of a key as either of the previously detailed matchups. West Virginia has done a good job of handling what little attention has come its way this year. The Mountaineers didn't freak out when trailing Louisville by double digits in the fourth quarter or when facing a tsunami of momentum from Maryland on the road. While many teams get too caught up in the hype surrounding emotional, rivalry games, this team doesn't figure to be affected by it.
The Panthers, on the other hand, have had an emotional roller coaster of a season. High preseason hopes, a crushing 0-3 start and a late season rally have had the Panthers on anything but an even keel in 2005. If Pitt can keep the game close in the first half and not get lost in the sea of emotion that is Mountaineer Field, they could have the chance to deny WVU the coveted solo Big East title they so desperately covet.
THINGS TO WATCH
If, as expected, cold temperatures and some snow flurries dust the teams on Thanksgiving night, will one have an advantage? Conventional wisdom says that it might be WVU, with its crunching running game and defensive prowess. However, cold temps didn't end up bother Pitt in a similar situation last year, when the Panthers were able to rally after trailing for much of the game to pull out a somewhat tainted victory courtesy of a disputed reception on their final scoring drive.
Not much seems to affect this Mountaineer team, which has already played and won a bad weather game against Rutgers. If there's one characteristic that distinguishes this squad, it's laser-like focus, so the guess is that mercury readings in the 30s or lower and a few flakes won't affect WVU's play.
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Heated rivalries often turn into close games, and close games often hinge on special teams. Therefore, punts, kickoffs, placekicks and returns will be a good place to focus your attention on Thursday night.
West Virginia has two special teamers, Vaughn Rivers and Pat McAfee, who could play key roles in WVU's final home game. McAfee, who has been more accurate since taking a bit of steam off his kicks, might get the chance to decide a close contest against the school so close to his hometown. Rivers has already noted the extra motivation that comes from playing the university that ignored him during recruiting.
The biggest danger for players like Rivers and McAfee is getting too fired up. They'll need to keep a lid on their emotions, which can often work against special teams skill position players. Turn an eye toward their activities in warm-ups, and see how they perform in pregame. That could give a hint as to their readiness for the Brawl.
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In the end, if you can't keep track of anything else, there is one quality, one attribute, that could have a bigger bearing on this game than anything else. Toughness, both mental and physical, has often been the determining factor in this bitter rivalry, and it could again tell the story in 2005.
Mentally, will West Virginia be able to keep the focus and frame of mind they have displayed in their first nine games? Will the teams be able to shut out any weather-related distractions? Will players that have bigger emotional investments, due to real or imagined recruiting slights or words of disrespect from the opposition be able to channel that into their play?
While all of those mental items may come in to play, they will be tough for onlookers to judge until after the fact. One facet of the game that won't have to wait, however, will be the physical side of the toughness equation. Early on, spare some glances at the lines and edges of the play, rather than always following the ball. Is one team hitting harder? Which side puts more of its opponents on the ground? Are the receivers carrying their blocks far downfield?
Often, the results from being the more physical team don't show up until later in the game, but you can get a hint of things to come by watching the pad-popping and pounding early on. The victors in those battles typically are the victors on the scoreboard as well.