Because of West Virginia's quick-strike offense, which scored four times on drives of three or fewer plays in second and third quarters of 21 points each, the offense took just 52 snaps. Cincinnati had 72, meaning West Virginia's defense might have more tired legs than normal going into a short week. It's an inevitable problem with a big play offense, and it is one that could be somewhat negated because of the added depth in the defensive backfield with freshman corners Boogie Allen and Guesly Dervil seeing time. Dervil played 79 snaps, counting special teams. The Mountaineers did substitute freely early in the fourth quarter until UC scored twice. Rodriguez then reinserted some starters, having them come cold off the bench with the game in hand.
"It's not as concerning as if you're not scoring," Rodriguez said. "The team that makes a few big plays and does not turn the ball over is going to win. I thought our guys played hard and executed well. There were some busts and some things we left out there. Our defense was aggressive, particularly at the end of the game. It was a good effort overall. This is a very physical team. They played hard all the time and are one of the strongest teams all year. We had a lot of guys in the training room."
West Virginia also has a lot of players that are questionable. Johnny Holmes might nit play because of a knee. Owen Schmitt sprained his left ankle in the first quarter when he left over a defender. He also hurt a left knee when reinserted late in the game, but that injury is fine. He is day-to-day with the low ankle sprain, which heals easier than a high sprain. There are also a handful of others with the typically bumps and bruises and nagging injuries.
Pitt leads the all-time series 59-36-3 heading into the 98th renewal of the rivalry. The teams have split the last four meetings, the Panthers winning by an average of 6.3 points, the Mountaineers by an even 20. The home team is 2-1 in the six games and has won the last three meetings. The game will be televised at 7:30 p.m. Thursday on ESPN.
"Rivalry games, the records, the momentum, and what have you, it is a non-factor," Rodriguez said. "A lot of our kids know their kids. Our two programs are the two closest in our league. The fact that it is on national TV just adds to it. I saw enough from them compared to last year to think they are not going to go too far away from what they do well. I think they are faster on defense, which was one of their goals. They have a lot of athletes that can make plays and I think their front is active and faster. I know a goal was to increase speed, and it looks like they have done that."
Pitt, at times seen as a better passing team despite head coach Dave Wannstedt's penchant for the run, is third in the Big East in scoring offense, with 33 points per game, behind Louisville and West Virginia, which leads at 40.2. It is second in passing offense with 232 yards per game and a very solid 68.2 completion percentage, which is just ahead of WVU's 67.3 to lead the league. The Panthers, which throw downfield far more than the Mountaineers, are also first in pass efficiency with a 176.3 rating, more than 20 points better than second-place Louisville.
West Virginia's defense, meanwhile, is third in pass efficiency and total defense, but second-to-last (Syracuse) in the Big East, allowing 215.4 yards peer game through the air. The Mountaineers would like to make the game more physical, and it realizes it must contain Palko – who has completed 161 of 235 passes (68.5 percent) for 2,223 yards and 22 scores against six picks – if not stop him.
"Here he is, a senior who understands the game and can make plays," Rodriguez said. "He is a coach's son, and is one of the smartest players we have pled or will play. If you let him sit back, he will pick you apart. We have to do a good job defensively of not giving him the same looks all the time and we need to get pressure on him. When Tyler scrambles, he does so with his eyes downfield. He has got big plays against us in the past with that. He scrambles, creates some space and keeps his eyes downfield to make a play.
"This game is always going to be physical," Rodriguez added. "I don't want to say they hate each other, but there has been a lot of passion there. We have a tremendous amount of respect for their program and we know a lot of their players and coaches from recruiting."
Note: Heinz Field is again expected to be in poor shape. The wind and other elements, combined with the multiple use of high school, college and professional games means the sod track is often just sand. When wet, it's a mud mixture that slows down teams. That could hurt the speed advantage WVU possesses.
"I have never been a fan of northern grass fields," Rodriguez said. "You look at a lot of high school games and college games played on grass this time of year, it is tough. It's tough to get traction. It is the same for both teams, but, for us, you'd like to have a fast track because we have fast guys. I think it is supposed to be rainy and cold. If it is really sloppy we won't (practice on our grass). I don't know if we need to. Heinz Field is different than any other surface we will play on. It gets a lot of use."
Rodriguez also told his favorite memory of the Backyard Brawl: "The wins," he said. "I remember we won in 1983, when Jeff Hostetler was here. He scored on a bootleg to win. The Pitt game was a bigger game on our schedule back then. Now, I don't want to say the rivalry has diminished, but the fact that you are in the league puts some emphasis on other teams."