MATCHUPS AND STORYLINES
Collins isn't a huge stat guy. He has carried the ball just 29 times for 99 yards this year, and has just one touchdown. However, he is a big part of Pitt's rushing game, as it is his blocks that typically clear the way for the success the Panthers have on the ground with running backs LeSean McCoy and LaRod Stephens-Howling.
Don't be fooled by Pitt's overall rushing average of just 3.4 yards per carry, either. That total is deflated significantly by sacks of the triumvirate of quarterbacks the Panthers have deployed this year. When the focus is put on the Panther tailbacks, the numbers are much better – the top duo averages a combined 4.79 yards per carry. That's largely in part to the work of Collins.
In order to slow the Panthers' power-heavy running attack, Williams will be tasked with avoiding the isolation and lead blocking forays of Collins and getting to the ball carrier. Of course, he'll need help up front, where the defensive linemen will need to control gaps and keep Collins from getting a free run to the second level of the Mountaineer defense. But Williams, who blends solid fundamentals, excellent instincts and surprising quickness, will also need to get off the blocks that do come his way and keep Pitt from hammering away inside and controlling the ball and the clock.
Pitt will no doubt be watching heavy doses of film from the Marshall, Rutgers and Connecticut games, in which those foes had success at times running the ball inside. The trick for the Panthers will be to extend that success over an entire game – something that no team has been able to do against the Mountaineers this year.
Phillips won't be lined up head to head on Reynaud all the time, but the way in which the West Virginia offense attacks a defense depends in part on what the safety is doing.
Phillips will have to mix up his moves and try to disguise his true intentions as long as possible in order to deny West Virginia the opportunity to get into the best possible play against a given defense. He will also have to be a sure tackler, especially in the open field, as he will often be the last man standing between a West Virginia ball carrier and a big play.
Reynaud will need to make the most of his opportunities when he gets the ball – something that he has missed on a couple of times of late. When he catches the bubble screen, he needs to get upfield as quickly as possible, and save the lateral moves for when he is one-on-one with defenders. He could also be a factor on the end around or reverse, as West Virginia has held that play out of its repertoire over the past couple of games. With the Panthers surely preaching pursuit and flying to the ball this week, the chances to catch them in an overeager mode could be good.
THINGS TO WATCH
Pitt quarterback Pat Bostick has done a solid job for a true freshman this year, but much of his success has come at home. On the road, he has not performed nearly as well, and while that's to be expected from a QB just one year removed from the high school playing field, it's certainly something to keep in mind as he walks into what figures to be an electric atmosphere at Mountaineer Field.
In order to pull the upset, Bostick will have to avoid the mistakes that have caused critical interceptions during his baptism by fire. He is certainly capable of doing so, as most project a fine career for the talented Pennsylvania native. Will he be able to do it, however, against a Mountaineer defense that has made numerous big plays in 2007? Handling the crowd noise, a differently-schemed defense and a rush that comes form all angles will be one of the biggest challenges of his young career. Look for the Panthers to try to keep the pressure off Bostick by running the ball early and often, and using shorter routes to limit the chances of interceptions, especially early in the game.
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There's a tendency to paint Pitt as a sad sack team with little or no moxie left for its final game of the season. While the Panthers certainly aren't contenders for the conference title, they are improved form a year ago. Pitt's rushing defense is better, its pass defense ranks nationally in the top twenty, and it finally has the ability to run the ball and follow head coach Dave Wannstedt's NFL blueprint for winning football games.
The question then arises – how will West Virginia and its fans respond if the Panthers are still in the game, say, deep into the third quarter?
Will WVU become frustrated? That doesn't seem too likely, as the Mountaineers have remained calm in the face of adversity all year. It's one of the hallmarks of this team. No matter what the circumstances, it just goes out and concentrates on the next play. Head coach Rich Rodriguez has preached that for years, and after hearing it 100,000 times, it has sunk in.
WVU's fans, however, are another issue. They will be there for a celebration and a coronation. There's no guarantee, however, that the party will start from the opening snap.
As for the Panthers, a little success could go a long way. They hope to ride the typical underdog master plan for a victory – stay close, gain some confidence, and make a big play or two to win it at the end. However, if the Panthers have a turnover or two early, a Connecticut-sized avalanche could be waiting.
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Other than turnovers, third down conversions might end up being the key stat in this game. West Virginia's offense has been excellent in that area, turning 50.4% of its third downs into first downs. Pitt, on the other hand, has converted just 30.8% of its chances into a new set of downs.
Of course, a number of factors, such as the distance to go on third down, plays into this stat, but the conclusion is undeniable. The Panthers will likely have to reverse those numbers in order to have a chance to knock West Virginia out of the national championship game.