It is difficult for West Virginia's opponents to figure out how to attack the Mountaineers' 3-3-5 stack defense because few teams use the scheme.
The unique defense -- much like Navy's triple-option offense -- is difficult for opposing teams to simulate in practice with scout team personnel. It is difficult to learn its nuances and different looks in just a few days of practice.
But the Mountaineers (7-3, 3-2 Big East) won't have that edge Friday night when they play Pitt (5-5, 3-2) because one of the coaches responsible for installing the defense in 2001 is Pitt coach Todd Graham, a former West Virginia defensive assistant.
Graham was a linebackers coach on Rich Rodriguez's first staff in 2001 and was promoted to co-defensive coordinator in 2002. He is well-versed in the 3-3-5, a defense he installed at Tulsa when he was head coach there from 2007-2010.
He said his knowledge of the stack defense will help, but like most weeks this game will come down to the basics and making the fewest turnovers.
"I have a pretty good idea [of how to attack it]," Graham said with a laugh. "But obviously football is about blocking, tackling and fundamentals. ... Our familiarity doesn't hurt.
"The thing about this [Backyard Brawl] game is it is about being disciplined. You have to play your technique and do it with a different level of passion. That is what you have to bring in this game. You are going to face adversity, it is going to be tough and the team that dominates this game physically is the team that is going to win."
Graham said the 3-3-5 defense creates issues for an offense because it is an odd front and it enables a defense to get eight athletic and fast players on the back tier of the scheme without sacrificing the ability to stop the run.
He said the fact that so many different combinations of players can come forward and fill the running lanes means an offensive line must pick up keys and clues as to who is coming and who is dropping into coverage.
"The nature of it is unorthodox -- they want to stop the run. They want to load the box and stop the run," Graham said. "That scheme is just different because it is an odd front with three backers stacked behind it and you just don't face it.
"When you are drawing on the board, you are always drawing up 4-3's or 3-4's, you just don't draw that [3-3-5] up. The whole idea is you get eight second-level guys that can run -- it is all about speed and getting guys to the football.
"It derived out of the deal of being unique. They are trying to set themselves apart from everybody else. It is sort of like the no-huddle -- it is hard to prepare for in three days. But I can have [all] the knowledge in the world about it, but you only have so many days to try and get ready for it."
Graham said the three linebackers have many options on each play and can be replaced by hybrid linebacker-safeties. That is difficult to simulate because those kind of players aren't generally on scout teams.
Graham said he had moved away from the defense in last few years at Tulsa and instead went to more of a 3-4 defense, with some 4-3 looks, because the talent level of defensive linemen that he was able to recruit improved.
When he got to Pitt he began with the idea that the Panthers would be a 3-4 defense and would incorporate some of the 3-3-5 stack, but he realized there were too many good defensive linemen on the roster to use strictly a three-man front.
"We've moved away from that. We are more of a four-man pass rush team," Graham said. "But the whole premise of [the 3-3-5] is to take a defensive lineman off the field and put an extra outside linebacker with speed on the field. It helps you pressuring and helps you against the run and with eight second-level guys in coverage, it takes away a lot of throwing angles."
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1720.