A year without a Brawl: Something missing for Pitt, WVU
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Pitt and West Virginia football players had a strange realization this week: One of the big rivalries in college football will not be played this Thanksgiving weekend.
The Backyard Brawl that took place 104 times in the past 116 years -- continuously since 1943 -- is one of the most significant casualties of college football realignment. This week, both teams lamented the loss of the game that will forever link the two programs.
"It's kind of strange," said West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, a senior. "That was a good rivalry. Pitt's a good team.
"I always keep track of them, even though I don't try to. I always see them go across the ticker and think, 'What did Pitt do this week?' "
Pitt players also admitted it didn't quite feel right preparing to play a team other than the Mountaineers this week.
"It is weird," sixth-year senior guard Chris Jacobson said.
"I'm not used to being able to go home on Thanksgiving. This'll be the first time in six years, so that's nice to do."
West Virginia will travel to Ames, Iowa, to face Iowa State in a Big 12 Conference game Friday. Pitt will play host to Rutgers in a Big East contest Saturday.
It is the Panthers' last football season in the Big East before joining the Atlantic Coast Conference. West Virginia left the Big East for the Big 12 before the season.
Officials for both schools have said they hope to revive the series, but there are no formal arrangements to do so yet.
Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson said last month that the ACC's decision to play eight conference games instead of nine opened the door to renew the Backyard Brawl, but talks were still preliminary.
Most signs, however, point to Pitt's priorities as being long-term deals with Penn State and Notre Dame.
"I think that now this maybe gives us some room to have that discussion," Pederson said. "I mentioned that [West Virginia athletic director] Oliver [Luck] and I have kind of talked about it, but until we had some definitive planning on our part, it was kind of hard to do that."
Players on both sides said they would like to see the series start up again in the next few years.
"Earlier in the season, we were talking about how it's going to be weird and different. Hopefully, something they can get back in the works," said West Virginia defensive end Will Clarke, a Pittsburgh native who has friends that play for the Panthers.
"It's weird ... Thanksgiving time is when we're playing Pitt. Instead Iowa State."
West Virginia junior receiver Stedman Bailey agreed.
"I'm so used to it. At this time of the year, we're about to face Pittsburgh. That's a game that's been around for so long being such a good rivalry."
The sentiments are the same with Pitt's players.
"We would love to [play them again,]" Panthers linebacker Todd Thomas said. "That would be good for us. We miss that Backyard Brawl."
In an odd twist, Iowa State, the team West Virginia will face Saturday, is coached by Paul Rhoads, a former defensive coordinator at Pitt who beat the Mountaineers four times during his tenure with the Panthers.
"Classic rivalry game. I've been blessed to be a part of a number of them," said Rhoads.
"It ranks right up there, the Pitt-West Virginia game, aptly named the Backyard Brawl.
"It's a shame for those two schools."
In addition to longevity, the rivalry produced its share of historic moments.
Pitt's 13-9 victory in 2007 against then-No. 2 West Virginia is one of the program's signature wins because it knocked the Mountaineers out of the national title game.
In 1975, Bill McKenzie booted a 38-yard field goal as time expired to give West Virginia a 17-14 win at Mountaineer Field, the only loss to West Virginia for Pitt's famed running back Tony Dorsett.
Every Backyard Brawl, though, is a memorable experience for the players involved.
"That's a big game," Thomas said. "Last year was my first year playing West Virginia in West Virginia, so [this year is] a little different."
The game Saturday is big for the Panthers, even if it may not have the same emotions of a rivalry game. Pitt must beat No. 21 Rutgers to maintain any hope of playing in a bowl game.
"Obviously, you want to get that West Virginia game in, but this is exciting," Jacobson said.
For the Mountaineers, Smith said Friday will be different, but he has an important task at hand. The Mountaineers need one more win in the team's final two games to become bowl eligible.
"It's different. But we've got another tough test ahead of us with Iowa State," said Smith.
"They're kind of similar to what Pitt does, they're always just scrappy and tough."
First Published November 22, 2012 12:00 am