Mountaineer head coach Rich Rodriguez, who played in the Brawl as a WVU defensive back in the 1980's, knows what's at stake for his team. After a loss at Louisville on Nov. 2, the Mountaineers were written out of the national title picture. The opportunity was still there for a fourth consecutive Big East title, but the blue and gold would need some help. They got that help last Thursday when Rutgers upended Louisville on a late field goal.
"We didn't feel (eliminated from the Big East race after the loss to Louisville) because we weren't halfway through the schedule," Rodriguez said Monday morning during the Big East coaches teleconference. "I think it's a long shot of us being in the national picture, but our focus has been on the Big East championship. That's our first goal every year. Here it is in November and we're in the middle of it. In some ways we're in control of our own destiny."
Standing in the way are the hated rivals to the north. The Pitt Panthers enter Thursday night's game trying to assure themselves of a bowl berth with seven wins. Pitt had to be feeling pretty good about themselves for most of Saturday's game at Connecticut. Dave Wannstedt's crew held the host Huskies at bay for most of the game, leading 31-17 in the fourth quarter. Connecticut quarterback D.J. Hernandez had other ideas, though, and rallied his team to an overtime victory. Thus Wannstedt and the Panthers limp into Thursday night's game with a lot on the line, but not much time to prepare for West Virginia's spread option attack.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, is looking for a way to slow down Pitt's passing game. Led by quarterback Tyler Palko, the Panthers will be looking to go deep on West Virginia's young secondary early and often. If nothing else, you can bet that the senior quarterback has West Virginia's attention.
"Tyler's a great player. We've known him since he was in high school, and we've played against him for several years," Rodriguez said of the former West Allegheny signal caller. He does all the things you want as a quarterback. He leads, he can throw, and he does all the things you want from your quarterback as far as managing the game."
Aiding Palko in Pitt's aerial attack are a pair of big play receivers in junior Derek Kinder, and redshirt freshman Oderick Turner. Rodriguez specifically mentioned Kinder as a threat to West Virginia's secondary thanks to his leaping ability and willingness to attack the football at its highest point.
"They cause a lot of concerns because they're tall guys that can run and go get the ball," said West Virginia's sixth year head coach. "Kinder has made one (big play off of a jump ball) every game, and sometimes with a guy right on him. For our guys, we have to practice on defending the deep ball and not letting them go out and get it."
Another intriguing storyline to the annual showdown between these rivals is the fact that many of the players know each other. Both schools tirelessly recruit Western Pennsylvania, though Wannstedt once claimed that he would be "building a wall" around the area so as to not let any recruits get away to the likes of West Virginia, among others.
Despite Wannstedt's wishes, the border patrol at the Mason-Dixon line has been only slightly more effective than the French Army. Several current Mountaineers, including freshmen wide receiver Wes Lyons, bandit safety Eric Wicks, and linebacker Mortty Ivy, have snuck past "Wanny's Wall."
"We've taken a lot of pride out of getting recruits in western Pennsylvania," said Rodriguez of West Virginia's recruiting efforts in the area.
On the field, the Mountaineers will again try to run all over Pitt. Last year's Brawl saw WVU quarterback Patrick White rush for a then-Big East record 220 yards en route to a blowout win for the Mountaineers. One play in particular, the read option, has been successful for West Virginia not only this year, but for five or six years.
"It's a simple play," Rodriguezz admitted. "The difference is the way that other people defend us now. Sometimes they'll squeeze the end and bring in a linebacker. Doing this for a number of years we've seen a lot of ways they defend the zone read. It's a base play in our offense, so it helps to have two guys (White and Steve Slaton) that are so fast, just in case Pat makes a misread the speed can still make it up.
"Sometimes there's an option to throw the football, and we have screens we can do out of there as well," Rodriguez continued. "The quarterback has a lot of options not only before the snap, but afterwards too."
Then again, it wouldn't be a big surprise if Pitt's passing game or West Virginia's running game was not the deciding factor in Thursday night's game. Stranger things have happened, and in the Backyard Brawl, you never know what you're going to get.