Back in the good old days, before JoePa got his panties in a bunch, every year around Thanksgiving we had the Pitt-Penn State grudge match to look forward to. Now we've got Pitt's "Backyard Brawl" against West Virginia University. It doesn't have the same luster, simply because I sense less enmity toward the Mountaineers.
I do wonder about the powers-that-be who schedule the season: Won't many of the students be home for the holiday? Shouldn't the NCAA at least pretend college athletics is about, well, college students?
Still, there's no better excuse to duck out on your family in a tryptophan haze than watching Pitt-WVU with your buddies.
Even though it's been a few years since this rivalry boasted a real star player, the WVU-Pitt game can do for Pitt what great rivalries do for all sports: The lesser team can sometimes catch lightning in a bottle, elevating its level of play based on familiarity with, and antipathy for, its opponent. Ask Duke's basketball team how important it is to beat UNC, or how Ohio State fans feel about losing to Michigan.
Pitt-Penn State it may not be, but these teams get geared up for this game all year. And in the middle of a disappointing season for Pitt, the Panthers can make something of this campaign by smiting West Virginia. For a win doesn't merely bring the Panthers' record to 6-5; it critically wounds the Mountaineers' chances of winning the Big East and getting a BCS bid. Call me an idealist, but taking pleasure in the misfortune of one's enemy is what athletics is all about.
West Virginia hasn't been schooling Pitt for the past few years -- it just feels that way. Over the past decade, the series is narrowly split 6-4 in favor of them 'Eers. More recently, though, WVU coach Rich Rodriguez is 2-1 against Pitt, including handing the Larry Fitzgerald-led Panthers a stinging 52-31 loss in 2003, which dashed any hopes Pitt had of winning the Big East. All I remember was Quincy Wilson exploiting a leaky Pitt D and running amok for 200 yards. Well, I remember that and a record number of sofas being set ablaze in Morgantown.
To say Rodriguez has done a good job is a massive understatement: Anybody who can recruit players to Morgantown is as much of a miracle-worker as Anne Sullivan ever was. The Mountaineers sit at 8-1, unbeaten in the Conference, ranked No. 12 in the BCS standings and poised to take the Big East crown from Louisville with a win against Pitt.
In the meantime, the jury's still out on Pitt's new head coach, Dave
Wannstedt. Perhaps expectations were too high: Pitt boosters expected Wanny to do here what Charlie Weis has done at Notre Dame. But by halftime of the season-opener versus those same Fighting Irish, it was clear Wannstedt's system needed more time to take root. Worse, after being taken to the woodshed by Louisville a few weeks ago, Pitt appears to be in disarray, with QB Tyler Palko and linebacker H.B. Blades publicly calling out teammates.
On paper, there is little evidence Pitt can pull off the big upset. It has been unable to play a complete 60-minute game against anybody but the gridiron equivalents of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Then again, the Panthers have had plenty of magic from special teams. Against Louisville, KO returner Terrell Allen provided viewers with the most exciting game opening they could ever ask for: In the first 25 seconds of play, Allen flubbed the opening kickoff, which was recovered by some lucky Cardinal for a touchdown -- but then redeemed himself immediately by taking the next kickoff down the sideline and to the house himself. More recently, cornerback Josh Lay was named the Big East Special Teams Player of the Week after the UConn game, when he returned a blocked field goal 71 yards for a TD.
Pitt's students and athletic director alike will be praying for repeat performances. Well, not of Allen's fumble, but you know.
If Wanny can rescue his freshman season with an upset at West Virginia, he'll have the immeasurable gratitude of all Oakland. And of the Morgantown Fire Department.