MORGANTOWN — It will be strength against strength and weakness against weakness when West Virginia and Pitt meet for the 106th edition of the Backyard Brawl tonight inside Milan Puskar Stadium.
This will be Pitt’s first game at Mountaineer Field since a 21-20 WVU victory in 2011. It is also the first true night game in Morgantown since a game against Oklahoma in 2016.
The teams are in a similar position early this season. Both teams are 1-1 entering tonight’s game (7:30 p.m., ABC) and have beaten an FCS team and lost to a Power Five team. Pitt lost to Cincinnati 27-21 last week while WVU fell to Penn State 38-15 in its season opener.
West Virginia’s stout offensive line will battle a Pitt front that leads the nation in sacks over the last four years while the Panther’s sputtering passing attack will go against the Mountaineers’ leaky secondary.
The Panthers have seven sacks through the first two weeks of the season, following the trend that has seen Pitt lead the nation with 199 sacks over the last four years.
“The DNA of their program has been what they do on defense,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said. “They like to pressure. I think it always starts with the defensive line with those guys.”
Linebacker Kamara Bangally and lineman Dayon Hayes already have two sacks each this season.
To combat Pitt’s pass rush, Brown said WVU will be careful to not leave offensive linemen in bad matchups while also trying to quickly get the ball out of quarterback Garrett Greene’s hands.
“They do a really good job of scheming protections and trying to get you in one-on-ones,” Brown said of the Panthers. “We need to do a really good job of helping (Greene) out by not getting our guys in back matchups and not having plays called where he has to hold the ball.”
Pitt’s defensive front will go against the strength of WVU’s offense, its talented and experienced offensive line.
“They’ve got 130-some starts, those guys are experienced,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi remarked. “They’ve got what they want to run the football and they ran the football on us last year. It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
The Mountaineers got the better of the matchup last season in Pittsburgh, led by All-American center Zach Frazier. Pitt sacked WVU quarterback JT Daniels three times, but the Mountaineers ran for 190 yards behind a 125-yard debut for then-freshman CJ Donaldson.
Donaldson, now a sophomore, is leading the Mountaineers with 145 rushing yards through two games. Quarterback Garrett Greene is right behind him with 110 yards and freshman Jahiem White had 115 after running for 110 against Duquesne last week.
“CJ Donaldson is a good football player,” Narduzzi said. Greene at quarterback, he’s athletic, he’s a weapon. They like to run the football. CJ’s 240 pounds, he’s a load, he’s hard to get down.”
WVu is averaging 238.5 rushing yards per game so far, although that number is slightly inflated thanks to 315 rushing yards against Duquesne. Pitt allowed 216 rushing yards to the Bearcats last week.
“Defensively, we’ve got to stop the run,” Narduzzi said. “We can’t let what happened last week happen, that hurt the offense. You let them run the ball, you let them drive and score touchdowns and that hurts the offense.”
Pitt got down 27-7 to Cincinnati last week and ended up throwing the ball 32 times compared to just 18 running back carries.
That’s a big departure from the offense Narduzzi wants — on Thursday he said he’d run the ball 50 times if possible — and the matchup to watch when the Panthers have the ball tonight will be sixth-year quarterback Phil Jurkovec against the Mountaineer secondary.
Jurkovec, who transferred to his hometown Pitt this offseason, is completing less than half of his passes this season and is coming off a poor performance against Cincinnati where he was just 10 for 32 for 179 yards and three touchdowns.
Jurkovec was sacked five times last week and was hit frequently throughout the game.
“Any NFL quarterback can tell you, when you get hit 21 times in a game and you get hit early when you shouldn’t, you’re going to struggle,” Narduzzi said. “He knows where to go with the ball. It’s just getting everything to be the right way.”
“I’m sure they were disappointed they didn’t connect with many (passes) against Cincinnati,” Brown said. “The scary thing for me is when he breaks contain. He has the ability to run and he’s a lot bigger than most defensive backs and then he has the arm talent to throw the ball down the field.”
Quarterback scrambling has already hurt the Mountaineers, who have given up five passing touchdowns and are allowing 281.5 passing yards per game.
“We’ve got to get better,” Brown said. “That’s only going to continue to get exposed as we move through the season starting this week unless we get that fixed.”
Brown said he has been disappointed in the play of the secondary through two games.
“There’s going to be some decisions made where we’ve got two games on film where some people have not performed as well and their playing time will decrease,” he said. “There’s going to be some promotions and demotions and some decreased snaps for some people.”
On his radio show Thursday night, Brown announced two new starters being inserted into WVU’s lineup. Receiver Hudson Clement, who broke out for 177 yards and three touchdowns last week, will start on the outside opposite of senior Devin Carter. At safety, senior Marcis Floyd is returning from injury and will start against the Panthers.
Transfer receiver EJ Horton will be a game-time decision to make his WVU debut, as will punter Oliver Straw, who was injured last week against Duquesne.
Although kickoff is not until 7:30 p.m., festivities for the highly-anticipated, sold-out contest will begin around Milan Puskar Stadium much earlier. The Davisson Brother Band will play a free concert at Almost Heaven Village from 3:30-6:30 p.m. The gates to the stadium will open at 6 p.m.