Stew's Views: Ready To Brawl

The WVU football team will enter the annual Backyard Brawl at perhaps the healthiest it has been in many weeks, thanks partially to the bye week the team just enjoyed.

"We met this morning, and it was probably the briefest one we have had in weeks," said Mountaineer head coach Bill Stewart of his staff's weekly conference with head trainer Dave Kerns, allowing Kerns to update the coaches on the health of their players.

"When Dave Kerns comes up to represent the medical side of the program, that's a very important meeting. We listen intently at that time. This morning, we listened intently, but we didn't listen long. That's good."

The second-year head coach said that star running back Noel Devine "is getting better each day." He did not elaborate any further on how healthy the junior speedster would be for Friday night's contest.

Stewart and company will hope to have Devine and the rest of their players at full strength for their second-straight game against a team ranked in the nation's top ten.

The Panthers sit at 9-1 on the season, with the lone loss coming against North Carolina State on the road in Raleigh.

Head coach Dave Wannstedt's fifth squad at his alma mater boasts an impressive offense that has been helped along by the sudden emergence of quarterback Bill Stull and the play of freshman running back Dion Lewis.

Stull had struggled through long stretches in the past (and even was booed lustily in his own home stadium at times) but has been aided by the play of talented receivers like Jonathan Baldwin.

Lewis had the unenviable task of filling the shoes of former Pitt running back LeSean McCoy, who left school a year early to head to the NFL, where he finds himself playing now for the Philadelphia Eagles.

The performance of those key skill position players and a solid offensive line (and the coaching of new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, Jr.) has helped provide a spark to an offense that sputtered at times in recent seasons.

The Panthers have scored at least 24 points in each of their 10 games this season. On six occasions, the squad has topped the 30-point mark.

"This offense is very, very good," Stewart said. "They scored 31 points in their only loss. This is a good football team."

"You're not in the top ten just because voters like you. They've got a good football team. We're up against it. We're going to have a whale of a challenge."

While the Backyard Brawl is always about pride between the two border rivals, that is almost all that is up for grabs in this renewal of the annual grudge match.

Pittsburgh will play host to No. 5 Cincinnati on Dec. 5 in a de facto Big East Conference championship game. The winner will advance to a BCS bowl game, no matter what either the Panthers or Bearcats do this week.

Still, Stewart didn't believe that would make players on either sideline less intense for this week's contest.

"I'm sure it will be a heck of a game," he said. "It always is. This is a very, very intense rivalry."

"I'm sure it will be a very physical, emotional and hard-fought game. They all usually are. If history repeats itself, which I'm sure it will, the game will probably be like they've been in the past -- tough and very exciting."

While little in terms of the 2009 conference championship race will be decided in Friday night's edition of the Brawl, the seeds of future Big East success could be sewn by the winner.

West Virginia and Pittsburgh have long been rivals on the gridiron. But that lengthy competition may only be matched by the pitched battles the two schools fight in recruiting western Pennsylvania talent -- high schoolers that grow up in the Panthers' proverbial back yard, many of which have headed to Morgantown over the years and been key parts of some of WVU's best teams.

"Each win, we sure like those," said Stewart. "But with Pitt and West Virginia, that's an intense rivalry that goes to recruiting roads."

You just develop that rivalry. Recruiting just helps intensify it."

In recent years, that battle has come down to the wire for several players. Pittsburgh won out on local products Cameron Saddler and Shayne Hale, while the Mountaineers managed to pry offensive lineman Don Barclay out of the area.

Those struggles are not likely to stop soon for offensive line coach Dave Johnson, who oversees West Virginia's recruiting process in that particular region. After all, there is still an abundance of high-level talent coming out of the Steel City (and the surrounding area) each season.

"(Former WVU and current Florida State) coach (Bobby) Bowden, I think 25 years ago, made a statement that Pittsburgh -- and this is when it was in its heyday -- was such a hotbed for these coaches and high school recruits, that you didn't have to leave the area to find the best athletes in the United States," Stewart said.

"That still holds true to a certain point. There's just not as many like there used to be because of the population decline."

In spite of all that is at stake on a yearly basis in the Backyard Brawl, Stewart said that both the players and coaches involved typically have a healthy dose of respect for each other.

"We do have a civil side to us at times," he said. "There's a great amount of respect, with not only the coaches, but the players have for each other. It's like playing your brother. You want to go out there and whip him -- and whip him bad."

RIFLE REPORTS:

  • While coaches normally are scrambling to prepare teams for their opponents, Stewart said that because of the bye week his team had (and the fact that WVU is out of session this week for classes due to the Thanksgiving holiday), he actually has to worry more about over-preparing.

    That means not falling prey to the temptation to install a series of trick plays or try to work the team too hard in practice sessions.

    "I learned a long time ago that in big games, fundamentals are the key," Stewart said.

    "Trick plays will not win this football game. I don't think they'll even alter the outcome. I know fundamentals is going to be the key. What you do in games like this is tie the laces up a little tighter, strap the pads down a little tighter and go out and play to the best of your ability."

  • To that end, WVU will modify its schedule slightly to try to keep from "getting (players) here and locking them down," in Stewart's parlance.

    The Mountaineers have short (5-10 minute) team meetings scheduled for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

    The team will take a bit of an extra opportunity to work on special teams (which normally don't get as much practice time during the season as coaches try to quickly install game plans) and will practice an hour earlier than usual to allow players to get home earlier in the evenings and rest.

    "It's a great bonding time for the fellows on the team," Stewart said.

  • Part of the team's week will be the annual opportunity for senior players to speak in front of the whole team the night before their final home game.

    "I don't know how I'm going to hold up Thursday night," Stewart said. "When they look at you, and tears are coming down their faces, and they say, ‘Thank you for recruiting me and giving me a shot when no one else did' – it's tough."

    "I want this week to go slow because of the youngsters we have in our program. We have 23 wonderful young men and they deserve all of the accolades that can be bestowed upon them.


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