Matchups: West Virginia - Pitt

Classic matchups and some evolving questions highlight our look at the Battles of the Backyard Brawl.

BlueGoldNews.com Game Scorecard
Fri 11/28/08 12:00 PM

Pittsburgh, PA

Heinz Field
Record: 7-3
BCS: 25
Last Game
Louisville W 35-21
TV: ABC
Radio: Sirius, MSN
Web: BlueGoldNews.com
Record: 7-3
BCS: 25
Last Game
Cincinnati L 21-28
Rosters/ Bios
Press Release
Season Stats
2008 Schedule

Series: UP 60-37-3
First Meeting: 1895
Last Meeting: 2007
Rosters/Bios
Press Release
Season Stats
2008 Schedule

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MATCHUPS AND STORYLINES

WVU nose tackle Chris Neild vs. Pitt center C.J. Davis

Neild's health, which limited him severely against Louisville, will be one of the major factors in this battle, and ultimately in slowing Pitt's running game. The Cardinals took advantage of Neild's early absence to rip off several healthy inside runs against the Mountaineers, and only a puzzling decision to go away from the run, coupled with a nose guard by committee approach from WVU, stopped the bleeding. Still, WVU's normally stout rushing defense gave up 198 yards (5.2 per carry) to Louisville – something that the Panther coaches are sure to take notice of.

Neild, who was hampered with a foot problem, couldn't produce the leverage he normally does. Pat Liebig, Julian Miller and Doug Slavonic all had stints at the spot, but none have the raw power of Liebig, who has morphed from a linebacker/fullback in high school to a sturdy and solid defender in the middle. His ability to play, and play effectively, will be key on Friday.

Pitt will likely test WVU inside early. Watch for McCoy on iso plays, where the fullback is matched up against a linebacker one-on-one. This works if the nose can't make a pile and gum things up in the center-guard gaps, and the Panthers will certainly try to spring McCoy into the secondary quickly, just as Louisville's Bilal Powell and Brock Bolen did. Although McCoy isn't a power runner of that sort, if he gets to the linebackers without restriction, he has the moves and speed to take the ball the distance.


WVU kicker Pat McAfee vs. Pitt kicker Conor Lee

They don't face off directly against each other. But in a game that figures to be tight, the kickers could have a bit impact.

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Pat McAfee
Both kickers have excellent resumes, but each has a bit of a hole to contend with as well. For McAfee, its short range misses, which have plagued him through the past couple of years. For Lee, it could be a lack of range. His longest successful kick this year came from 44 yards, but whether that's due to a lack of confidence or leg strength is something of a question. It could be that Pitt simply hasn't been in a situation to attempt a 50-yarder this year, as West Virginia has. However, there's no doubt that Lee has great accuracy. When the Panthers get the ball to the 25, they can count on three points.

McAfee, of course, has the aforementioned misses, but he also has a strong leg, having converted successfully from 50+ yards this year. That gives West Virginia the chance to score from further out, which could be huge in a late game situation.

Which one comes out on top in a pressure situation? Both have done so through their careers. Lee has shown more consistency, but McAfee undoubtedly has a flair for the dramatic. Like everything else in this game, there are many different factors that can come into acts so simple as kicking the ball. The kicker that can block out all those distractions and thoughts could be the one to propel his team to victory.


THINGS TO WATCH

The most obvious tactical matchup to watch is the obvious one. Will Pitt use many of the same defensive schemes that helped hold WVU's offense down last year? If so, how will West Virginia respond? For the answers, we take a quick look back.

Against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, WVU countered some run-clogging tactics with a few passes that helped loosen up the Sooner defense. However, West Virginia had the advantage of facing a defense that hadn't seen it before. Against Pitt, the tables are turned a bit – familiarity rules. However, West Virginia has shown that it won't beat its head against stacked defensive fronts. If Pitt loads up, expect downfield passes.

Another angle, however, is that such tactics will take the ball out of Patrick White's hands – at least for rushing purposes. When White runs it, that's when WVU is most effective. If Pitt forces West Virginia to do otherwise, it wins an important strategic edge.

All this cat and mouse, however, overlooks one important aspect of the game – tackling. Pitt did that extremely well in 2007, missing just a handful of potential stops. If it can repeat that performance again this year, all the schemes in the world won't make any difference.

* * *

There's also an emotional aspect of the game to consider. While both reams are still playing for bowl positioning to some extent, it's pretty well known that the "picking order" of bowls is nothing more than a façade. West Virginia holds a bit of an upper hand in the process, having demonstrated much better fan support than the Panthers over the years, so a loss by either team might not affect their bowl destination (Assuming Cincinnati defeats Syracuse. Which team will handle that better?

The thinking here is that West Virginia, having bounced back from a couple of disappointing defeats this year, has shown the ability to regain its focus and play, if not at peak efficiency, well enough to win. The Panthers have likewise rallied from losses this year, but the most recent one to the Bearcats has dumped them to a lower level bowl, although even that modest achievement might be enough for a team that has been absent from the postseason scene recently.

None of this takes away from the intensity of the Backyard Brawl, however. Both teams will likely be well-motivated when they hit the field at high noon. However, in the face of adversity, the team that can shake off an early turnover or bad bounce could be on its way to victory.

* * *

Although Pitt hasn't made a living throwing the ball deep, expect the Panthers to test WVU in this area more than once. WVU's safeties, while playing reasonable well, have been fooled on several occasions this year, and only a couple of drops and off-target throws have kept the Mountaineers from giving up more yardage and points in the passing game. West Virginia must be more disciplined against run fakes, but that can be a difficult job when concentrating on containing the likes of LeSean McCoy. Robert Sands and Eain Smith, in particular, must have solid games, "stay as deep as the deepest", and not let receivers get behind them – especially in the middle of the field.


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