This game is as much a psychological battle s it is physical. Pitt (4-7, 2-4 Big East) s outmatched. It's not outclassed, however, and the Panthers have enough talent, however raw, to create problems for what could be a tight WVU team looking not to better its national standing, but merely protect it. The No. 2 Mountaineers (10-1, 5-1) have already clinched a fourth league title in five years, but the meaning and magnitude of this game is much greater than that. As the students returning from fall break will attest, West Virginia is one step from playing for the pinnacle of college football. That step must be taken, and taken against a downtrodden, but still dangerous, rival.
"I think the fact that it is Pitt and the Backyard Brawl will help us," Rodriguez said. "This is an easy one to get motivated for. What I don't want is for our guys to get too tight with so much on the line. They understand that. What I want them to do is see the value of preparation, then just go play and have fun. … We are very proud to have won a Big East championship. One of our first goals is to be in the mix for the race each season. You don't know how the chemistry and the luck will come into play. We felt we had some talent and some good leaders, but know we had to have a little luck.
"We don't really talk nationally as much as we talk Big East championship first and foremost. The focus of this team has been very, very good from the summer to this point. (But) the intensity of (WVU-Pitt) is so big. I think it's because we are so close. In the offseason our players see their players and there always seems to be a lot at stake."
Never more than now. Pitt's defense has played significantly better of late, and its offense is starting to score more under freshman quarterback Pat Bostick. The Panther coaching staff acknowledged they cannot yet get too complex in the passing game, and thus cannot afford to fall behind West Virginia. Pitt is making plays on special teams and is stout enough against the run that if the Mountaineers do not play well, avoid turnovers and execute, then WVU could be in for a much stiffer test than expected.
"They are better than a 4-7 team," Rodriguez said. "Our players know the intensity of the rivalry and have a lot of respect for their players. They are a better football team than they were at the start of the year and they are better than they were last year, when they led us at halftime. I think more than anything, it's the talent they have. They have some explosive players, and that in itself always gives you a chance. We achieved one of our goals and now have another opportunity to achieve another against a rival and a Pitt team with very good players whose coaches have done a really good job."
Rodriguez is expecting a physical game. Pitt still utilizes a very much bluecollar style of ball control, running between the tackles and throwing play action passes. They will involve the tight end and, defensively, the idea is to stop the run first, then worry about the opponent's passing game. It has worked well enough to keep the Panthers in most games, but not well enough to earn many wins. In a program that might perpetually be a year away, this has not proven t be the breakthrough season some expected. A win over a second-ranked archrival would do much for a morale boost, as well as a shot in recruiting.
"The intensity and emotion adds to the physical part of it," Rodriguez said. "I think both teams have prided themselves on that over the years. And the fact we do a lot of recruiting against them adds to it. The guys on both sides know each other. I can remember all of (the Backyard Brawls) as a player. That was in the early ‘80s with Dan Marino. Darryl Talley blocked a punt and we thought we were going to sneak away with one, but Marino brought them back. I think you remember all that as a player."