Big East title on line in Backyard Brawl
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.
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.