MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- One has to look hard to find vulnerability in the West Virginia defense, the fourth-best unit in the country yielding 245.1 yards per game this season.
If there has been a weakness for the Mountaineers (6-3, 2-2 Big East) on defense, it has been stopping middle passing routes.
That has been the area of the field opponents -- when they have made yardage -- have attacked.
Perhaps that is why West Virginia coach Bill Stewart understands the impact Pitt sophomore receiver Mike Shanahan could have as his team rolls into this Backyard Brawl with Pitt (6-4, 4-1) Friday at Heinz Field.
At 6 feet 5, 220 pounds, Shanahan has shown a willingness to zoom across the middle of the field and pull in passes, knowing that a crushing blow from a safety or linebacker is the price to be paid.
Shanahan, who graduated from Norwin High School in 2008, was heavily recruited by the Mountaineers when Stewart was an assistant under Rich Rodriguez. Shanahan is a friend and was a high school teammate of West Virginia tight end Tyler Urban, whom Stewart implored to help with in the recruitment of Shanahan.
Shanahan decided on Pitt, but Stewart couldn't have enough good things to say about him.
"I absolutely admire and respect Mike Shanahan," Stewart said. "And I hate it that we are going to have to face him. He is a gamebreaker. The vertical seam, and the shallow and deep dig [route], will give us fits. And Mike Shanahan, No. 87, I hope, is not on the receiving end of that."
Much has been made of the condition of the playing surface at Heinz Field. The choppy grass has caused NFL teams to file complaints with the league and one ex-Steelers kicker to criticize it.
West Virginia assistant coach Dave McMichael -- whose duties include the field-goal game -- was asked how much the Heinz Field turf will impact a decision to attempt anything deeper than a chip shot against Pitt.
"I don't know, how bad is the field?" McMichael asked, prodding reporters for what they knew. "We've got to get up there and take a peek at it to see if it makes that big of a difference. We will look at it. ... you can't have it be a big mental thing."
McMichael explained the importance of the pregame session. During that practice, McMichael said he will have kicker Tyler Bitancurt attempt kicks and then come back to him, wanting Bitancurt to relay the truth about his comfort level while kicking off the grass.
"A lot depends on him, and how he's feeling and what he tells me," McMichael said. "But I think there is also a degree of mental toughness that comes into play, and I think he's a mentally tough kid."
A perfect situation could come together for West Virginia sophomore running back Shawne Alston in this Backyard Brawl. Alston, a player who was seldom-used through the first eight games of the season, suddenly has become a viable threat in the offense, spelling senior Noel Devine and getting 24 carries for 111 yards in the past two games.
In this game, however, there could be a practical application -- more than just his recent experience -- to what Alston offers. He is a 5-foot-11, 222-pound load who maintains tailback moves and feet and is able to nudge through the middle with a ferocity not seen in the smaller Devine.
With potentially sloppy field conditions Friday, it could be a perfect day for an increased workload for a "mudder" such as Alston.
"When we got in an I-formation, and Shawne dots that I, you can see teams really loading that box," West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith said.
"They know he's coming. And the fact that, even with that, he breaks off 10- and 15-yard runs, that makes it even better. He's picking his holes and getting downhill. I think that has really become an extra dimension to our offense."
Colin Dunlap: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1459.