Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Backyard Brawl Preview

It's that time of year again folks... THE BACKYARD BRAWL! Nothing gets the blood pumping for a Pitt fan (and I'm assuming for a WVU fan too) more than talking Pitt/WVU football these days, especially after last season's monumental win for the Panthers that firmly put the Dave Wannstedt Era Panthers on the right path. It also re-ignited a rivalry that, quite frankly, had grown a little stale the previous two seasons as WVU elevated its program to elite national status. This season, the Panthers will head to their first bowl since Walt Harris was whining up and down the sidelines. The Mountaineers, meanwhile, opened the season with sky-high expectations, but their new coach Bill Stewart had some definite growing pains early on in the season. Pat White also had some injury issues that contributed to a wildly disappointing start. Despite a 26-23 loss to Cincinnati three weeks ago, the Mountaineers appear to have righted their ship in time to battle the up-and-coming Panthers. So let's break this puppy down for all to see:

Pitt Offense
It was maddening to watch that Panther offense against Cincinnati. Our beloved blue and gold continued to try to stretch the field with a quarterback who almost never hits on a deep ball, and the offense ignored Shady McCoy for long stretches despite his excellence when he did get the ball. Still, the Panthers saw what Shady did last season against the 'eers and it will be hard even for Matt Cavanaugh to ignore the tape from a year ago and overthink this thing, as he tends to do. It would help the Panthers to have LaRod Stephens-Howling back at full strength after he all but sat out the Cincy game due to injury. Certainly, LaRod is no Shady but he is still an effective offensive weapon to have in the fold. Despite Stull's downfield struggles, Matt Cavanaugh has shown he will continue to try to get the ball to Jonathan Baldwin downfield. If Stull can hit one downfield early on it could make all the difference in the world, and that's what Cavanaugh is going for.

West Virginia Defense
Though their schedule hasn't been the most imposing one around, the Mountaineers Defense has been steady, if unspectacular, when its mattered. They gave up 24 points in their Week 2 upset loss against East Carolina, but even in that game they kept WVU in the game until very late in the third quarter, when the offense's incompetence just cost them too much. In the Cincinnati loss, the Bearcats scored 26 points, a season high against the Mountaineers, but 7 points of that was a kick return for a touchdown, and the Mountie D also forced a safety. This is a team that will keep the score close and relatively low scoring in Friday's game. They did a much better job defending Cincy than our Panthers did, giving up less than 200 yards passing and 100 yards rushing. Stull's tendency to take shots downfield at Cavanaugh's urging could provide an opportunity for West Virginia's defense to create some turnovers. The 'eers have 12 picks on the season, LB Mortty Ivy is the team leader with 3 picks and is very good in coverage, and is a guy the Panthers will have to account for in this game. Sophomore corner Brandon Hogan has come on very strong of late after taking over a starting cornerback spot early in the year.

Pitt Defense
The Panthers had some major issues adjusting to the Bearcats game plan early on, and it was almost embarassing to watch them make career backup Tony Pike look like a future first round pick. Yet the Mounties run a very different scheme than the Bearcats do, and the Panthers have a pretty sound understanding of the WVU offense after watching Pat White run the show for 4 years. Let's hope Phil Bennett has been closely studying the tapes of a year ago when Paul Rhoads, despite all the aggravation of his tenure here, put on an absolute clinic. Scott McKillop was a beast among men in that game last year against WVU, and has similarly been excellent this year, and I would expect similar results Friday. I will be very interested to see what happens with the defensive line this week. We saw Cincinnati execute those sickening screen-type plays several times last week after Pitt's D-Line burst upfield, and it was one of the things that led to the Panthers' demise. WVU has not shown much of a tendency to run those types of plays, but if Romeus, Sheard, Duncan, and Williams are getting past the WVU O-Line early on, I would look for the Mounties to make an effort at incorporating these screens to try to neutralize that disruptive defensive front. And, as always with the Panthers this season, their secondary will leave Panther fans taking a big gasp every time Pat White puts the ball in the air. Thankfully, WVU is one of the most run-happy teams around, and while White and Noel Devine could easily burn the Panthers, I'd rather take my chances with them then a QB who can stretch the field on our porous secondary.

WVU Offense
The Panthers may have an excellent D-Line and a spectacular middle linebacker, but the speed and athleticism of this bunch will be tested, as Noel Devine has emerged as one of the biggest home-run hitters in college football this season. If Devine gets space to move around, the opposition is typically in some deep stuff, so the work of the Panthers depleted outside linebacker corps will be a definite key. However, Devine, while a very dangerous weapon, has also been very inconsistent this season. He has 5 100 yard games, but has also had 3 games where he averaged 3.5 yards per carry or less, with at least 17 carries in each of those 3. As scary as Devine can be though, Pat White is still what makes this offense go. Barring two big games to finish the season (and I am by no means discounting this) White will likely have the lowest rushing total for this season of his brilliant 4 year career, and will almost certainly have the lowest yards-per-carry average as well. The 'eers have developed something of a horizontal, west-coast type passing scheme this season to complement their lethal ground game. Backup running back Jock Sanders has a team-leading 41 catches, a shockingly high number, and Noel Devine is second on the team with 28 grabs of his own. Receiver Alric Arnett and Dorrell Jollah are okay at getting downfield to open up running lanes, but are nowhere near the downfield threats the 'eers have employed in years past like Darius Reynaud and Brandon Myles. All this makes for a strange yet effective offensive scheme where the vast majority of the offense is generated when the end-ball-carrier gets possession at or around the line of scrimmage.

The Bottom Line
The bad blood here should be much worse this year than in the past several years, as the Mounties finally have a reason to respect our Panthers, and they know just how much Pitt cost them a year ago. The Panthers' hopes lie with Shady McCoy, and if he can get some things going early on, it will make all the difference in the world for Pitt. The WVU defense is stingy, though, and I'd be a little surprised to see any patented Shady long TD runs, but all we need is him to run like the guy who won that WVU game last season. The Mountaineers will need Pat White to have another monster game, and any Panther fan who tells you he's not absolutely terrified of Pat White is lieing to your face, as this guy is one of the deadliest players college football has seen in years. The defenses for both squads will have their work cut out stopping these two, and my prediction is that whichever one can have a bigger impact earlier on in the game will be the one that leads their team to victory. Forunately, the Panthers showed last season they can keep White in check after two years of flailing around hopelessly, but the Mounties had no answer for our superstar, Shady McCoy.
Panthers 20 Mountaineers 17

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