WVU's road to the championship runs through the Backyard
Pitt on a platter.
That's what they're serving Saturday night at Milan Puskar Stadium, although West Virginia football fans are hoping it's only an appetizer. The main course -- likely something Cajun -- is planned for the first Monday of January in New Orleans, site of the BCS National Championship Game.
The second-ranked and heavily favored Mountaineers need only to beat Pitt in the 100th Backyard Brawl (ESPN, 7:45 p.m. ET) to prompt the following phone call from somewhere in Morgantown to the Louisiana Superdome:
"We'd like to book a party of at least 30,000 the night of Jan. 7."
A victory Saturday likely would produce a title-game matchup between West Virginia and either No. 1 Missouri or No. 3 Ohio State -- and nobody in these parts could have imagined as much after the Great Mountaineer Meltdown two months ago at South Florida.
West Virginia committed six turnovers in its 21-13 loss at Raymond James Stadium. It promptly dropped from No. 5 to No. 13 in the Associated Press Top 25 and completely out of any rational national championship discussion.
"I gotta be honest with you -- some of us guys really didn't think we'd get back up here," said WVU cornerback/return man Vaughn Rivers.
Coach Rich Rodriguez wasn't sure, either, but in a season that already had seen Appalachian State win at Michigan, he knew that nothing was decided Sept. 28 and that it wouldn't be for quite some time.
"We're not out of it," Rodriguez told his players, "but we're going to need to some help."
Rodriguez predicted South Florida would lose. It did, three times. Meanwhile, the Mountaineers reeled off six consecutive victories, including a 66-21 dismantling of Connecticut this past Saturday in the de facto Big East title game.
"Now," Rivers said, "our destiny is in our hands. I can't even imagine what it's going to be like in our place Saturday. I feel like we have to give people something to see."
Pitt owns a 59-37-3 edge in the series, but WVU has won 11 of the past 15 meetings, including the past two by a combined score of 90-40.
There hasn't been a bigger home game in 116 years of West Virginia football.
"You couldn't ask for a better setting -- Backyard Brawl, 100th meeting, everything at stake," linebacker Marc Magro said.
As if there weren't enough built-in motivation, West Virginia has a handful of Pittsburgh-area natives who were spurned by Pitt and would take much pleasure in torching the Panthers on a national stage.
Two such players -- Rivers and safety Eric Wicks -- were teammates at Perry Traditional Academy in Pittsburgh's City League, the same league that produced Major Harris, one of the great players in West Virginia history.
Harris quarterbacked the Mountaineers to the brink of a possible national championship, but he was injured early in the 1989 Fiesta Bowl and played hurt in the 34-21 loss to Notre Dame.
Rivers, who leads the Big East in punt-return average (10.9), and Wicks would be ultra-geeked for this game even if the Mountaineers were 1-10 instead of 10-1.
"We're two of the prime guys from right there in the heart of the city who didn't get offers, didn't even get looked at by Pitt," Rivers said. "West Virginia is our new home. These are the guys who welcomed us in, gave us an opportunity, and we ran with it. It gives us so much more motivation."
Added Wicks, "The Pitt game's always big for us. It's going to be crazy in that stadium."
Another key member of WVU's defense, junior linebacker Mortty Ivy (7.2 tackles per game, six sacks), played quarterback at Pittsburgh-area Gateway High School but didn't get much of a look from Pitt. Senior safety Ryan Mundy (10 passes defended) played at nearby Woodland Hills and could have gone to Pitt, but opted for Michigan before transferring to WVU this season as a graduate student.
"I'm sure this will set in more later in the week because it's my first Backyard Brawl and I always watched these games as a kid," Mundy said. "I used to watch [former Pitt stars] Curtis Martin and Rod Rutherford and Larry Fitzgerald, and I had some high school teammates who went to Pitt. To actually experience this will be really special."
It won't be so special for Pitt (4-7) unless the Panthers find a way to control WVU game-breakers Pat White and Steve Slaton. Those two have combined for some silly rushing numbers in their first two Backyard Brawls.
Try 834 yards, an 8.2-yards-per-carry average and eight touchdowns.
This game could provide one last key campaign stop for Heisman Trophy candidate White, who said he is thinking only of team goals and is wary of Pitt.
"We know we'll get their best shot," White said.
Truth is, Pitt winning as a four-touchdown underdog would be an apt ending to a crazy college football season. And the Panthers, although their passing game is a natural disaster, have a game-breaking tailback in freshman LeSean McCoy (1,180 yards rushing, 14 touchdowns) and a much-improved defensive line that includes budding star end Greg Romeus.
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, like Rodriguez, experienced the Brawl firsthand as a player. He's telling his players they have a chance to shock the world.
"If you go down there and perform well and win the game, it's something you'll talk about the rest of your life," Wannstedt said. "People will talk about you the rest of your life."
The Mountaineers unveiled some interesting personnel packages against UConn, with Slaton blocking for freshman dynamo Noel Devine, who rushed for 118 yards on just 11 carries.
Afterward, Devine engaged in this memorable exchange:
Reporter: "Noel, how would you describe your running style?"
The same could be said of WVU's climb to the precipice of the national title game, although, as Rodriguez said, "You gotta get to that game before you can win it."
Well sure, the appetizer always comes before the main course.
Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
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