McAfee, Lee Brawl For Final Time

Perhaps the finest, and most personal, non-direct battle in the 100th Backyard Brawl will be between Pat McAfee and Connor Lee, two Steel City soccer players who will match kicks and nerves for West Virginia and Pitt.

Lee, a senior, has made 16 of 19 field goals this season and accounted for 75 Panther points. McAfee, a junior, has hit 11 of 13 – the most accurate field goal percentage in the Big East – and 57 PATs for 90 points. The latter is a Plum, Pa. native who wasn't recruited at Pitt because of Lee's presence, and never really considered playing near his hometown after West Virginia (10-1, 5-1 Big East) offered a scholarship out of high school, a rarity becoming more common.

The two will square off for the final time, and though it won't be a head-to-head match, it could be one of the most important areas of play. Pitt (4-7, 2-4) doesn't have the overall talent of West Virginia, but, like in 2006, could play with the No. 2 Mountaineers if it manufactures plays in special teams. Returner Derrell Revius brought a McAfee punt back 74 yards last season to give Pitt a 27-24 lead at the break in WVU's 45-27 win. This year, the Panthers have enough ability and skill to test West Virginia's coverage units. Aaron Berry, who played behind Revis last year at corner, is averaging 8.6 yards per punt return, and has unleashed a 53-yarder. Lowell Robinson, a quick, speedy player with elusiveness, averages almost 25 yards per kickoff return, meaning any ball he touches gives Pitt the advantage of already having covered one-fourth of the field.

The containment onus will be on McAfee and a Mountaineer unit that has drastically cut down on the return yardage it was allowing early in the season. The current 60.4 yards per kick and 41.5-yard net average means foes have an average starting yard line of the 29. That's not an incredible number, but ranks third in the Big East, a significant upgrade from WVU's sixth-place standing at one point this year. Pitt is sixth in the league, with a 39.5-yard average net, though Lee has kicked off just twice all season and is not expected to do so in this game.

McAfee's ability to get a 4.4-plus second hang time and place kicks into the end zone or between the hash marks and numbers for better coverage will loom large with Pitt's offense bogging down. A special teams spark or returns to the 40-50 yard line will give the Panthers a short field and allow Lee to get within his range with minimal drives of just 20-30 yards. UP head coach Dave Wannstedt acknowledges field goals likely won't be enough to stay in the game against a West Virginia offense averaging 42 points per game, but the mere ability to gash WVU anywhere and perhaps return a kick for a score could bolster the 28-point underdog.

"I don't know if you guys happened to remember last year, the college Play of the Year," McAfee said. "I was on the ESPYs. I remember Revis doing some things to us. They also had a nice return where I got shook. I remember that. Our coverage teams are doing well now, though, and I think we will be all right."

Lee, an Upper St. Clair native, has accounted for as many as 83 points in a season, that coming as a sophomore. The total was the third-highest scoring tally by a Panther in the last 25 years and established Lee as a legit threat. Though Lee didn't see any action in 2005 after coming to Pitt in January of 2004 from Fork Union Military Academy, the coaching staff sensed it had a solid enough kicking game that it didn't need an additional scholarship player at the spot, and thus completely ignored McAfee. That hasn't bothered the Mountaineer at all, though he does admit that the Pitt game takes on an added meaning because of his connection with Lee and his hometown.

"I have a lot of friends that go to Pitt," McAfee said. "It's more when I go home, all the talking that will take place. It's more that I don't want to hear about it. Now it's a big deal when I go home. I get to rub it in a bit if we win."

McAfee admits Lee, who hit all three point-afters and both field goals against WVU last year, has a better technique and pure kicking stroke than he does. The Pitt player was a four-year football letterman for Upper St. Clair and was named all-state in soccer and football as a prep senior. He also led USC's soccer team to three state playoff berths, a WPIAL championship and two conference titles. McAfee, a three-time all-WPIAL soccer player, was a first-team all-conference pick in high school and won the 2003 national Punt, Pass and Kick competition, showing his increased versatility against Lee's pure placekicking. He also has better range, nailing a 65-yarder at a one-on-one kicking competition in Miami.

McAfee often notes that his technique is "awful" but that he has enough power and strength to pull or push the ball through the uprights as needed. That added leg drive has been used in punting as well, where McAfee has kicked 38 times for a 40.8-yard average. He ripped off longs of 71 and 62 yards versus Cincinnati and Connecticut, respectively, and averaged 49.0 and 52.7 yards per punt in those two outings. If he can duplicate those numbers, Pitt will be pressed to make any plays against West Virginia's speed.

Lee can be used as a punter, but has kicked just once all season, that for four yards on a shank. WVU returner Vaughn Rivers will instead go against Dave Brytus. The junior has averaged 40 yards per punt with four touchbacks and 23 fair catches – a number that will likely hold with Rivers' brashness: "I have played in a couple of Backyard Brawls where both teams were ranked, but this one will be like no other," he has said. "It's the last game of the year and a chance to do some big things."

Still, the end-game match in the Brawl will be Lee and McAfee, who both admit they will be watching one another's performance. For each, it's a last chance to compete on a non-professional level after facing one another for six of the last eight seasons.

BlueGoldNews Top Stories