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Big East title on line in Backyard Brawl

11/16/2003

West Virginia and Pittsburgh have been playing each other in the Backyard Brawl since 1895.

For years, the schools have met with little more than pride at stake. On
Saturday, the two rivals will play one of the most significant games in the
series' long history when the Panthers travel to Morgantown, W. Va. to face the
Mountaineers with the Big East championship on the line.

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    The formula for Pittsburgh (7-2, 4-0) is simple. A victory over West
    Virginia followed by wins against Temple and Miami to close the regular season will
    hand the Panthers their first Big East title and BCS berth.

    It's a tad more complicated for the Mountaineers (5-4, 3-1). West Virginia
    must win its last three games -- Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Temple -- then hope
    Pittsburgh beats Miami on Nov. 29. That's assuming the Hurricanes get by
    Syracuse on Saturday and Rutgers next week.

    The fact that Pittsburgh is contending for a conference championship isn't
    surprising. The Panthers began the season ranked 11th and were seen as a
    darkhorse in the national title picture before suffering embarrassing losses to
    Toledo and Notre Dame.

    West Virginia is another story. The Mountaineers were written off like last
    year's stock market losses after falling to 1-4 following a 22-20 defeat to
    Miami on Oct. 2. A year after shocking their Big East counterparts by finishing
    second in the conference, West Virginia appeared destined to be this season's
    biggest disappointment.

    "Who would have thought we'd be here a month ago?," said third-year WVU
    coach Rich Rodriguez.

    Since losing to the Hurricanes, the Mountaineers have ripped off four
    straight wins, including a 28-7 blowout of then-No. 3 Virginia Tech in Morgantown on Oct. 22 that propelled West Virginia back into the conference race.

    "I love it," said tailback Quincy Wilson. "People are always saying, 'West
    Virginia? Who's that?' Everybody's heard of Miami and Virginia Tech. It's all
    about, when you get a chance to play them, that you show them you can hang
    with the big boys."

    The Mountaineers proved that to Miami, leading for much of the game before
    losing on a field goal with 11 seconds to play. West Virginia could have
    folded after that disappointment. Instead, the bitter defeat seems to have sparked
    the Mountaineers. Victories against Rutgers, Virginia Tech, Central Florida
    and Boston College have followed.

    "We've really played with some swagger instead of standing around and
    letting teams dictate how they are going to play to us," said Wilson, the son of
    former Chicago Bear linebacker Otis Wilson. "We're trying to ride out that
    wave."

    Much of the credit goes to Wilson, who is fourth in the Big East with a
    rushing average of 113.1 yards per game. The Mountaineers finished second
    nationally in rushing last season, but a rebuilt offensive line caused them to get
    off to a slow start on the ground this year. In West Virginia's four defeats,
    the team averaged 142.5 rushing yards. During the four-game win streak, the
    Mountaineers have gained 241.2 yards per game.

    Wilson's most important game this season may have been his worst. In the
    15-13 loss to Cincinnati Wilson fumbled the ball away three times. That debacle
    shook the senior's confidence.

    "The Cincinnati game was kind of humbling," said Wilson, a backup to Avon
    Cobourne last season. "You start thinking you're not good enough. But the
    coaches came up to me and said, 'You're our rock. We're going to keep on feeding
    it to you. We know you fumbled three times, but we're behind you.' I can't let
    them down again."

    The key to winning on Saturday as it was against Virginia Tech, Wilson
    said, is to "jump on (Pittsburgh) early and keep the crowd in the game."

    Whether that's good enough to beat Pittsburgh, which is also on a four-game
    win streak, has yet to be determined.

    What's certain is that this season's Backyard Brawl will carry some real
    punch.

    Jorge Milian covers the Big East for the Palm Beach Post.