Backyard Brawl: Pitt has struggled with West Virginia's defense

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Pitt's offense has struggled to score against West Virginia's defense the past five times the two teams have met, and this version of the Mountaineers' defense -- statistically, at least -- shapes up to be one of the best defensive units in school history.

West Virginia has allowed 12.9 points per game. The Mountaineers lead the Big East Conference in every significant defensive category, including rush defense, allowing only 88 yards rushing per game.

Perhaps, the most impressive number associated with the Mountaineers is 21. West Virginia is the only major college team in the country which has not given up more than 21 points in a game this year.

All those numbers are well known to Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, who said the Mountaineers play defense as well as any team he has seen in some time.


Game: Pitt (6-4, 4-1 Big East) vs. West Virginia (7-3, 3-2), noon, today, Heinz Field. Pitt is favored by 1 1/2.

TV, radio: WTAE-TV; KDKA-FM (93.7).

Pitt: Leads the all-time series 61-38-3. ... Is 5-5 against the Mountaineers since 2000. ... Has been held to less than 20 points in five of past six games against West Virginia. ... Has won 15 of its past 20 Big East games. ... Will honor 11 seniors as they play their final game at Heinz Field.

West Virginia: Won last year's game, 19-16, on a last-second field goal by then freshman kicker Tyler Bitancurt. ... Leads the Big East in scoring defense (12.9 ppg), total defense (245 ypg), rushing defense (88 ypg), pass defense (157.1 ypg) and pass defense efficiency (104.3 rating). ... QB Geno Smith is second in the conference in total offense (209.9 yards per game).

Of note: The visiting team has won 13 of the past 23 games in the series.

He said that while the Mountaineers' scheme -- they run a 3-3-5 -- is not a defense teams see much, the strength of the defense is that they have fast, athletic players who understand their roles and are disciplined enough to be where they are supposed to be nearly every play.

Cignetti and the Panthers (6-4, 4-1 Big East) will try to solve the stout defense of the Mountaineers (7-3, 3-2) today when the two teams meet at Heinz Field in the 103rd edition of the Backyard Brawl.

A Pitt win would mean at least a tie for the Big East championship. A West Virginia win would put the Mountaineers in position to win the conference title with another weekend of Big East games to go.

Cignetti said watching the Mountaineers' defense on film is scary for any offensive coordinator because they don't seem to have any weaknesses.

"They are very well-coached and they have excellent personnel," Cignetti said. "They have an excellent front seven with an athletic back end that covers a lot of ground. They play hard, they play relentless, they create turnovers, they stop the run -- they can make you very one dimensional very fast.

"They do a great job. The scheme is a little different, so you do have to take a little more time with it in your preparation."

Because that scheme is not used by many other teams opponents don't get to study it often. Pitt, however, like every team in the Big East, sees it at least once a year.

Despite that, the Panthers have not scored more than 20 points against the Mountaineers in four of their past five meetings, and, the one time they did, they lost.

"Every year, it has been a little bit different," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said when asked about why the Panthers have struggled offensively against the Mountaineers. "A few years ago we were more of a wildcat team, with LeSean McCoy and LaRod Stephens-Howling, but the last time here we had some success running the ball at the end.

"I think they know what we are trying to do, that isn't much of a secret. The kids know each other and the players know each other, so it comes down to execution."

Pitt sophomore quarterback Tino Sunseri is in his first year as a starter and has not faced the Mountaineers' 3-3-5 so, theoretically, there could be a period of adjustment and confusion for him early.

Neither Cignetti nor Sunseri, however, subscribe to that theory. Both said if the Mountaineers are able to stuff Pitt's offense, it won't be because the Panthers are confused.

"Not at all," Cignetti said. "The structure of what a quarterback sees is 'is it one high safety or is it two high safeties' and 'is it zone or is it man,' so the structure of it being a 3-3 should not affect the quarterback at all."

Sunseri said, "them being a 3-3-5 defense, it definitely gives us a look that we haven't seen all year. We have a big challenge on our hands even just to move the ball against them. But, as a quarterback, you want to get out there and see what the other team is doing, I wouldn't say it is nerves, I'd say it is eagerness.

"You are trying to get your team to move down the field and try to score some points. But, whenever you go out there, you can't show your emotion, you have to keep that even keel and make sure you keep the guys around you grounded."

The Panthers have scored 179 points after halftime this year, but only 98 before the half.

Cignetti took responsibility for some of that by saying he has, at times, played it a little too close to the vest early in games -- he cited the South Florida game as an example -- and has not always given the offense the best opportunity to score points.

Cignetti said that the Panthers can't get off to a slow start against the Mountaineers because their defense gets better as the game goes on. But he made it clear that no matter how much of a grind it is or how ugly, the only objective is winning games.

"At this point, there are no style points," Cignetti said. "As long as we win the game, you just have to celebrate the victory."

Paul Zeise: or 412-263-1720.


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