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Backyard Brawl will be Won in the Trenches

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It’s very cliche to say that a football game will be won in the trenches, but for the Backyard Brawl that is exactly what’s going to happen.

Both teams return all five starters among the offensive line and veteran All-American candidates along the defensive line. Both team’s units have been hyped up to be among the best in their respective conferences by both the local and national media.

For West Virginia, the team has swapped tackles Wyatt Milum and Brandon Yates to opposite sides, though Yates still could end up being the back-up to Ja’Quay Hubbard. That’s the only change made to last year’s unit that returns Milum and center Zach Frazier, two players that have gotten significant individual hype this off-season.

Granted though, the numbers suggest that last year’s offensive line struggled. The team was last in the Big 12 in rushing yards per game (123.2), allowed the conference’s most sacks (38) and averaged less than four yards a carry (3.5) for the lowest mark in the Big 12. In all seven of their losses, the team failed to top 100 total rushing yards. These numbers are not entirely chalked up to the quarterback, like a lot of fans want to believe.

However with experience comes improvement, hence why the unit is expected to go from one of the worst to one of the best without changing a single player. There’s a combined 107 starts between the five of them at the college level with three of those players now entering their third season together. Experience is the best teacher in the offensive line.

As for Pitt, they have the 17th best offensive line in the country according to college football preseason guru Phil Steele, for comparison West Virginia is 37th. They also had a high sack total last year with 34, granted they played one more game than West Virginia.

Ironically in an offense that heavily leaned towards the air attack, their run protection was a major strength as the team averaged 149 rushing yards per game last season. 147 combined starts are back, making them extremely experienced as well.

Both offensive line units will be going up against top 30 defensive line units in Steele’s unit rankings with West Virginia slotting in at No. 27 and Pitt slotting in at No. 2. Both feature a strong pass rush and potential All-Americans.

Again the units overall numbers from last season – 139 average rushing yards against and just 27 sacks – don’t reflect the talent and experience of the group itself. They showed as much in their first five games last year, when they allowed just 88 rushing yards per game and had 17 of their 27 sacks.

Highlighted by returning seniors Dante Stills and Taijh Alston, the unit is expected to be among the best in the country. Stills was first team All-Big 12 last year while Alston had 11 tackles for loss and five sacks.

Pitt’s defensive line is well-regarded as one of the best in the country and likely the top unit that West Virginia will face this season. They’ve lost players to the NFL prior to the start of the last three seasons, but have somehow managed to improve each year. This cumulated in a defense that allowed just 89 rushing yards per game last season alongside an astonishing 54 sacks.

Most of last year’s unit returns including five defensive lineman that combined for 26 sacks. Defensive tackle Calijah Kancey was first-team All-American last year by numerous outlets and defensive ends Habakkuk Baldonado and Deslin Alexandre are two more stars that have been getting praised. Depth on the line is deep, including Aaron Donald’s younger brother Elliot Donald who redshirted last season.

Both teams have made it a point to run the ball well this year, though West Virginia’s switch to an air raid offense might contradict that. Regardless the two team’s strengths are in their offensive and defensive lines. Whichever team wins the war up front, will likely win the football game.

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