Backyard brawl: chapter 104
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Pitt coach Todd Graham believes a key to slowing West Virginia's offense is to make sure the Mountaineers don't have good field position.
That means avoiding turnovers by protecting the football and making sure the Panthers contain West Virginia's explosive punt and kick return units.
West Virginia has had 23 returns of 20 yards or more and that includes three of 60 yards or more and a 100-yard touchdown return by Tavon Austin.
"Austin's ability to return kicks and punts is phenomenal," Graham the coach said.
- Matchup: Pitt (5-5, 3-2 Big East) at West Virginia (7-3, 3-2), Mountaineer Field, Morgantown, W.Va.
- When: 7 p.m. Friday.
- TV: ESPN.
- The skinny: Pitt owns a 61-39-3 edge in the series. The winner Friday remains in contention for the conference title.
Austin is ranked No. 7 in Division I-A in punt returns (14.8 yards per return) and No. 31 in kickoff returns (25.19). He has a career kickoff return average of 23.9 yards.
He can make tacklers miss and change a game with one big play, Graham said.
"They are as good as there is in the country with Austin as a kickoff returner and a punt returner," Graham said. "They have also had other guys back there. They have really good skill players in their return game. They get great field position. They start on their 40-plus yard line a lot.
"Our coverage teams have to do a great job, there is no question about it. That is going to be big in the game. That is part of those explosive plays."
The winner of the game Friday between the Panthers (5-5, 3-2 Big East) and Mountaineers (7-3, 3-2) will still be in the race for at least a share of the Big East title.
The Panthers know all too well about how a kick return can change a big game. Their dreams of winning a Big East championship and BCS berth in each of the past two seasons have been hurt by kick returns.
In 2009, the Panthers played host to Cincinnati in the last game of the regular season in a winner-take-all game. Pitt had a 21-point lead, but Bearcats receiver Mardy Gilyard returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown right before the half, which seemed to swing momentum in Cincinnati's favor.
Pitt took a 14-point lead early in the fourth quarter but Gilyard again returned a kick to the Panthers 23, and four plays later the Bearcats scored to get within a touchdown. Pitt eventually lost, 45-44.
Last year, the Panthers had a two-game lead in the Big East race with four to play and faced Connecticut.
Pitt led, 21-13, late in the third quarter, but Connecticut returner Nick Williams returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. That play propelled the Huskies to a 30-28 win and they went on to win the Big East championship.
Graham, in his first year as Pitt coach, has been involved in plenty of games that were changed by a special teams play or big return and said it is an often overlooked part of each game.
Despite the fact that Austin is so explosive, Graham said they won't do any special kickoffs or squib kick the ball. He said he has faith in his kick and punt coverage units to get the job done because they have been consistently good this year. (Pitt is No. 3 in the Big East in kickoff coverage.)
"We have a plan each game and we have pretty much been just kicking the ball off deep," Graham said. "We probably won't do a whole lot different."
NOTES -- Graham is hopeful that Lucas Nix (knee) will play against West Virginia, but it will again be a game-time decision. Nix practiced at full speed Tuesday. ... Arizona's hiring of Rich Rodriguez has already stirred speculation that Pitt offensive coordinator Calvin Magee and defensive backs coach Tony Gibson -- former Rodriguez assistants at both West Virginia and Michigan -- could be headed west with him. "You hire good people and sometimes people are going to come after them," Graham said. "I want what is best for our coaches and their families and we pride ourselves in how we take care of our staff and the commitment that we make to them and we have a great place to work. That's all we concern ourselves with. We can't worry about things we can't control." ... Pitt added a recruit -- 6-foot-1 cornerback Jahmahl Pardner from Rochester (N.Y.) Aquinas Institute. He had offers from Temple, Bowling Green, Buffalo and Akron.
First Published November 23, 2011 12:00 am