In a tried, and true, approach, the message will again be ball control. Wannstedt would like the Panthers to control the clock, convert short third downs after some success on first and second and capitalize on any red zone chances. Pitt (4-7, 2-4 Big East) turned the ball over three times in a loss to South Florida last week. It cannot have any turnovers to beat No. 2 West Virginia (10-1, 5-1), and indeed will likely need to win that area.
"It was a little bit disappointing the way we finished," Wannstedt said of the 48-37 USF loss. "Turnovers were difference in game. If you turn it over three times for touchdowns, you are not going to win. Everyone knows what type of team (the Mountaineers) have. We have to make every offensive possession count, and we can't have a turnover or a penalty and punt it to them. We have to get touchdowns and control the ball, convert third downs."
The Pitt defense has actually played well, and limited four of its last five foes – USF excluded – to an average of 19.5 points per game. The Panthers have yet to face any team as explosive as WVU, however, and without a decent passing game and an inexperienced quarterback, Pitt cannot typically recover from major deficits. Nor should it expect to score more than 28 conventional points; West Virginia is averaging 42 per game.
"Speed. They are getting more speed and big play options on the field now," Wannstedt said of the WVU offense. "It makes a difference. (Noel) Devine brings a dimension on the big play capability that they don't have when he is not on the field. It makes you defend the whole field a little more. You have to be honest with your schemes and be true and not overplay (superback Steve) Slaton. But we have watched a whole bunch of film where (fullback Owen) Schmitt has made big runs for them.
"Overall, I am real pleased with our defense. Without turnovers early we would have been statistically better and had a chance to win more games. I am pleased with the return game and kickers. But we are not running it as well as I would like. The biggest challenge is no secret. Because of the merry-go-round at quarterback and the injuries, we have not been able to make enough playas in the passing game. One part of that is you're not going to score enough points and we have turned it over for big plays and touchdowns. Pat (Bostick) is learning a lot and he is going to get better."
Besides Bostick, one of three true freshmen starting at quarterback in Division IA, Pitt has used Bill Stull and Kevan Smith. Bostick has thrown eight touchdowns against 11 interceptions, and Smith has four picks against one score. The total 15-11 interception-to-touchdown ratio is among the worst in the nation. Add in a solid rushing game that averages 140 yards per outing but rarely makes big plays and the Pitt offense might be too workmanlike in an era when offenses are being increasingly relied upon to win games.
Pitt has little to lose except its eight game, and with no bowl hopes, the Backyard Brawl will serve as a chance to make an impression on national television. West Virginia spoiled Pitt's bowl hopes in 1999, defeating it at Mountaineer Field, and the rival could accomplish the same if it gets help from the home team.
"We are not going to go in and do something totally foolish," Wannstedt said of his team's approach. "If we feel an opportunity presents itself, we might (run a trick play). We will go down there and play loose and have fun and play to win. I think since it's Pitt-West Virginia and they are the Big East champ, that's motivation. When you are struggling like we are, you are always looking for things to add to. Now you play a real quality team and one of the best in the country. It's the Pitt-West Virginia rivalry, and that adds to it.
"I can take you back when I played down there as a player and we used to go to the old stadium in the valley there. It is one of those great college atmosphere places to play, especially when West Virginia and Pitt play. It was always a game you looked forward to. When the schedule came out and you got the media guide, the West Virginia game was always one that you circled. It didn't make any difference what the records were. When we beat them my senior year, Bobby Bowden was the coach there, we beat those guys and that was the first win that gave our team the feeling that we beat a real good team on the road. It was a big game for us."