Pitt's defensive coordinator Phil Bennett "The team who plays the best defense on Friday will win, period."
By Paul Zeise Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The focus this week leading up to the Backyard Brawl Friday between Pitt and West Virginia has been on the Mountaineers' stellar defense and whether the Panthers will be able to solve it.
The short answer to that question likely is no, but the Panthers haven't had much success against the Mountaineers' defense in recent years, including the games Pitt has won.
That's why Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett didn't mince words Tuesday when he was asked what he thought would be the key to the game.
"Let's face it, let's be cut and dried," Bennett said. "The team who plays the best defense on Friday will win, period. That's the challenge for our guys. That's the bottom line. And, yeah, I put a number [of points Pitt needs to score] -- one more than they got."
Bennett might be putting a lot of pressure on his defense, but the recent bottom line in this series is the Panthers only have won the games in which they played great defense.
The last time Pitt's offenses fared well against West Virginia was in a 38-28 victory in 2000 at Three Rivers Stadium.
Going further back, the Panthers have scored 30 or more points against the Mountaineers only three times in the past 15 meetings, and Pitt was 2-1 in those games. And only once -- in a 41-38 triple-overtime win in 1997 -- did the Panthers score more than 40.
Conversely, West Virginia has scored 30 or more points seven times in the past 15 games against the Panthers and in five the Mountaineers scored 40 or more and in three they topped 50.
Breaking it down further, the Panthers have scored more than 20 points once against the Mountaineers in the Dave Wannstedt era -- in 2006, when they lost, 45-27. But six of those points came courtesy of a punt return for a touchdown by Darrelle Revis.
In the past three games, neither team reached the 20-point mark.
So, as Bennett said, it is up to the Panthers' defense to match the Mountaineers' defense if Pitt is going to have a chance to win. And Bennett said the Panthers will have to play much better than they did Saturday in a 17-10 win against South Florida, even though Pitt held the Bulls to one touchdown on a gimmick play.
"I'll be quite honest with you I was disappointed in our defense last week," Bennett said. "We missed sacks, we missed way too many tackles, we were getting there, we played fast and a play that comes to my mind was the play that Dom got [penalized for] head-to-head contact [on South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels]. We missed two sacks on that play alone, it should have been third-and-30, and instead we give them a first down.
"But as the kids know, I am hard to please, I am old and contrary."
Bennett was dismayed by the Panthers' poor tackling because it kept the defense on the field longer than it needed to be. He then pointed to the West Virginia game last season as an example of the Mountaineers' ability to make teams pay for missed tackles as one of the biggest plays was an 88-yard touchdown run by tailback Noel Devine.
"They have a chance at any time of being explosive," Bennett said. "Jock Sanders is going to be their all-time leading receiver. Tavon Austin is getting better and better since they converted him from a running back [to a receiver]. You can't just say 'I am going to take this guy away' and, when you play a team like that, you have to be pretty balanced yourself.
"They have a quarterback capable of taking a bad play and making it a good one. And the other thing he does well is keeping a play alive. And [Devine] has been nicked up a little bit, but he convinced me last year with that 80-something yard run that he's a really good football player."
One other issue in the win against South Florida was the five pass-interference penalties against Pitt, four of which were called on Antwuan Reed.
He said the issue has been addressed and was a matter of poor technique by Reed and cornerback Ricky Gary, but he also echoed Gary's sentiments that perhaps the penalty is being called way too much in college football.
"We had a little 'simulate Antwuan' drill, but Antwuan didn't think it was too funny," Bennett said. "I was playing like the cover corner and, at my age, I was covering like him. It was one of the lighter moments. But it is getting ridiculous.
"I always thought that I would one day coach in the NFL but I don't know if I can. The rules, it is an offensive game, you just have to face it, they want points. It is like covering air, you can't touch them. And [the college game] is becoming that way, absolutely. They used to say when the ball is in the air it is everybody's ball, [now] that is not true. The rules aren't set up for it."