It’s taken Pitt and West Virginia 11 years, but the Backyard Brawl is finally here. Things are much different from the last time these rivals regularly faced off in the 2000s. During that time, West Virginia was the better program winning seven of the last 10 Brawls and constantly remaining in contention for a Big East title.
Since the two teams went their separate ways and joined the ACC and Big 12 respectively, Pitt has trended upwards while West Virginia has stagnated. This has led to Pitt being a 7.5 point favorite in the renewal of the series.
But that doesn’t mean the game has already been decided. West Virginia can certainly pull off the upset despite being on the road and the less experienced of the two teams. If the upset were to happen, it would be because these three things happened.
Stop the Run
A well-covered storyline for Pitt this past off-season has been the lost of Heisman contender Kenny Pickett, Blitenikoff winner Jordan Addison and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple to the NFL Draft, transfer portal and Scott Frost. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi has been very vocal, perhaps too vocal, about his desire to run more than they did last year. The team has a talented running back in Israel Abanikanda and a proven offensive line, but this new scheme will be playing into the strength of West Virginia’s defense instead of their weakness.
West Virginia will need to take advantage of this. A defensive line that returns Dante Stills and Taijh Alston is expected to be the strength of this team. Last year’s numbers – 139 average rushing yards against and just 27 sacks – may speak otherwise to that assessment but the unit has flashed brilliance in the past. In their first five games last year they gave up just 88 rushing yards per game and had 17 of their 27 sacks. That’s a pace a fraction of a hair from being equal to what Pitt’s highly-touted defensive line put up last year.
Meanwhile West Virginia’s secondary sees new faces almost everywhere as cornerback Charles Woods is the only returning starter. They brought in experienced players, but this group still hasn’t played a single meaningful snap together. It is fair to expect growing pains in the early part of the season from them.
If Pitt plans to run the ball, that could be their undoing. West Virginia needs to use their strengths to take advantage of an offensive scheme that isn’t designed around taking advantage of West Virginia’s weakness.
Air Raid it Out
On the opposite end, West Virginia’s air raid offense could take advantage of a defense like Pitt’s. Pitt’s defense as a whole is expected to be very tough this season, but their secondary has been susceptible to allowing big plays. While their pass rush should once again be nothing short of incredible – they’ve averaged 51 sacks a year the last three seasons – Pitt’s secondary is known to be feast or famine.
They gave up 264.3 passing yards a game last year which was tied with Vanderbilt for the 17th most in college football. In all three of their losses last season, the opposing quarterback threw, at least, three touchdown passes and averaged 372.3 passing yards a game with only two total interceptions.
An air raid is meant to take advantage of defenses like these. But West Virginia needs to be careful. Yes their offensive line is meant to be a strength, but they gave up a Big 12 high 34 sacks last season while Pitt’s 54 sacks were near the top in the country. In addition to that, Pitt’s secondary has done a great job at generating turnovers. They had 15 interceptions last year which was tied for the 10th most in FBS. They essentially generate a turnover for every big play they give up.
It’s feast or famine in Pitt’s secondary and West Virginia needs to make sure Pitt is starved by the game’s end in order to win.
Control, but Play With Emotions
It’s a heated rivalry game, the first such one in 11 years. While people will disagree with how many total, one thing we can all agree on is that there will be a significant number of West Virginia fans in Pitt’s stadium. It’s also week one for the key fourth season in Neal Brown’s tenure.
Add it all up and you got an emotional cocktail.
There’s a strong argument to be made that West Virginia is less talented than Pitt across the entire board, but so what? Since when are rivalry games or week one games decided on talent alone?
Just like Pitt did in their infamous 2007 Backyard Brawl victory, West Virginia can harness their emotions and make up for any differences in talent level to win the game. Emotions can provide an extra boost of adrenaline which leads to more energy.
The downside is, playing with too much emotion can lead to mental errors or miscues that translate to bad results on the field. Even worse, allowing your emotions to affect one’s play can make it more difficult to climb out of a hole that one dug for themself.
To put it bluntly, there’s a balance to be had and West Virginia needs to have it. They have to allow their emotions to give them that extra boost of adrenaline without compromising their mental state on the football field.
West Virginia and Pitt will finally meet on the football field in the 105th Backyard Brawl tomorrow at 7:00 p.m. at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh. The game is being broadcasted on ESPN and will be the first site of College Gameday this season, as they will broadcast inside the stadium prior to kickoff.