Two years ago in Morgantown, West Virginia entered the Backyard Brawl on the cusp of a spot in the national championship game. Pitt was just trying to salvage its season.
As they return to Mountaineer Field for the 102nd edition of the storied rivalry on Friday, that 2007 meeting appears to be a turning point, or sorts, for both programs.
Since Pitt's 13-9 win over No. 2 West Virginia, the Panthers are 19-5 and will play fifth-ranked Cincinnati on Dec. 5 for the Big East title.
"I think that win, when you look back on it, it gave us life," Pitt coach
Meanwhile, the Mountaineers haven't been the same since that loss, which knocked them out of the BCS title race. Coach
As Pitt seeks its third straight win in the Brawl, Panthers fans seem almost apathetic about the game, with the school unable to sell its allotment of tickets. But while the series has shifted Pitt's way, Wannstedt says the rivalry remains as bitter as ever. "Throw the records out," he said. "Show up. You better be ready to play," he said.
But if Pitt gets caught looking ahead to next week's Cincinnati showdown, the biggest game of the new-look Big East will be a make-or-break game for the Panthers. Losses to WVU and the Bearcats would drop Pitt to 9-3, which won't likely earn it a BCS berth. Under that scenario, it could also elevate the Mountaineers to second in the conference and a spot in the Gator Bowl (should it not select Notre Dame), instead of playing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl for the second straight year, as they're currently projected.
"We're definitely in the minority with what we are doing here," Wannstedt said.
In fact, outside of No. 2 Alabama, Pitt is the only team in the top 10 that uses a pro-style attack that's predicated by a power running game. The Panthers, who rank second in the Big East in total offense, use fullback
Wannstedt says he's avoided the spread craze because "I know you can be successful doing what we do." It gives the Panthers a look that defenses rarely see, making it as difficult to prepare for as Georgia Tech's spread-option. The only other Big East team that runs an offense similar to Pitt's is UConn, which piled up 501 yards on West Virginia, the most it has given up all season.
Those aren't the best streaks to be on against a Panthers defense that leads the nation with 40 sacks and is 11th in tackles for loss. What makes Pitt so impressive is it's done it by rarely adding additional rushers to its front four, led by ends
"You can not spend a lot of time worrying about the two defensive ends," Stewart said. "If you do that, it will take you right out of your game plan."
Though trying to keep Romeus and Sheard may be the biggest key to the game. Stewart has alluded to using a two-tight end formation, which could help to keep pressure off Brown and allow Devine, who is expected to be close to full speed, to break loose. If they can't stop Pitt's ends, West Virginia could struggle to find its rhythm yet again.
"Obviously the offensive line is doing a good job, but I think one of the biggest differences [from last season] is the quarterback [Stull]. He's playing really well in terms of showing some real good field general-ship, getting them in and out of different things ... obviously the running game has helped him out and he has some solid receivers, but there's no question that he's playing with the calmness of a senior and doing a solid job in terms of leadership and delivering the ball in some critical situations.
"I think you have to make [Stull] beat you. If you can do something as far as slowing their run game with Lewis ... you have to make sure you don't give up explosive runs and make them one-dimensional. If you can make them one-dimensional and make the quarterback have to throw the ball numerous times to beat you, I think it takes away who they are and what they're about offensively and it puts a lot of pressure on him.
"They use multiple personal groupings. They use the two-back system as well as they'll use the multiple tight end system. The one thing that I think is the X-factor with them is