"Every victory is important," said redshirt junior linebacker Anthony Leonard. "Just getting that victory, especially at home and sending out the seniors, makes it that much more significant and that much more important. We lost the last two in tight, tight games with great teams on both sides of the ball."
Leonard, a native of McKeesport, Pa., grew up just 15 miles outside of Pittsburgh. Despite being so close to the university, he admits that he did not become familiar with the animosity between the two schools until his interest in West Virginia grew.
"The year that I committed I watched pretty much every West Virginia game," said Leonard. "Around that time, it was still West Virginia over Pitt then after the 2007 season it really just defined what the Backyard Brawl really was."
After being redshirted his first year, Leonard said he really got a taste for the true intensity of the game in 2007, when the Mountaineers lost at home to Pittsburgh. Despite seeing limited time on defense that season, the emotions from that painful loss were felt by everyone on the team.
"Growing up, I never really paid much attention to [the game]," said Leonard. "I was a Penn State guy. Fortunately, the game became something to me two years ago in that dramatic loss. Since that day, that's when you had a feel for the Backyard Brawl and really saw why it's called the Backyard Brawl. I kind of got to see that day what the Backyard Brawl really meant."
Now that he has been thrown into the mix, Leonard admits that it is a topic of conversation when he goes home to Pennsylvania. Despite the emotions on the field, he noted that off the field all the trash talking is done in jest.
"It's always discussed," said Leonard. "We joke around a lot with the friends that I do have on Pitt. A lot of times, we really don't talk during the season but during the off season, it's like a brother situation, like ‘I'm going to beat you.‘ No you're not going to beat me.'"
After a tough, emotional loss to Cincinnati, the Mountaineers could not have asked for a better time to have a bye week. The break allowed the team two weeks to prepare for the game against the Panthers. Although off weeks are always welcomed, Leonard admits that this one was particularly well-scheduled.
"[A bye week] is always a good thing," said Leonard. "It gives the players a chance to heal and focus on the game plan. We can enhance the game plan and what you're going to do with your opponent. Having that off week was a great thing for both teams."
Both squads have a lot to play for in the contest, with the Panthers striving for a BCS slot, while the Mountaineers are aiming for a ten-win season and the best bowl possible. It's a cliché, of course, but those things get thrown out the window when Pitt and West Virginia meet on the football field. Whether it's bragging rights at home or redemption for past losses, there's always something extra at stake in this game.