Although it's Brawl Week, and the Pitt hate is a-flowin' here at The Smoking Musket, we still found the civility to sit down for a brief Q&A with the SB Nation Pitt blog Cardiac Hill. So far this year, Pitt is having a disappointing season, sitting at 5-5 overall with losses to Iowa, Utah, Notre Dame, Cincinnati and Rutgers. However, the Panthers are 3-2 and right in the thick of the Big East race mostly due to wins over USF, Louisville, and UConn. If Pitt wins out, it would likely need losses by both Cincy and Rutgers to get the BCS bid. As always, we know that anything can happen in the Backyard Brawl. I don't think I need to remind anyone that you can throw the records out the window when it comes to WVU-Pitt. So with that, let's take a look at this year's edition of the Brawl from an opposing fan's perspective:
Country Roads: Has your football team been to a psychologist lately? The team seems to have an uncharacteristially schizophrenic personality, getting beat 15-12 by Notre Dame before turning around and blasting then-undefeated USF 44-17...and then promptly embarrassing themselves by losing 34-10 at Rutgers. What gives? Is it a matter of the players not fully grasping the offense? Is there an issue with focus? Are there underlying matchup problems that the casual fan would not be aware of?
Cardiac Hill: I think the biggest problem is that Pitt doesn't have a grasp over the offensive system enough to be fully consistent. The reason we've seen success at times is because there is talent on the team. But the reason we've alson seen then struggle is because they don't quite 'get it.' That's probably not been more evident in any other player than quarterback Tino Sunseri. Sunseri, though, has been better and the coaches seem to have realized they can't throw as much of the playbook at him as they'd like. Todd Graham talked earlier about trying to get 65% of the playbook down and that, we've found, was probably a bit unrealistic because the systems from last year to this year are vastly different. In the last three games they've scaled things down, the team has been 2-1 and very competitive. I don't think it comes down to some complex theory, I simply think it's a matter of the team trying to learn a new system - and doing so with an average quarterback that's not really suited for it.
CR: Early in the year, the offense seemed to lean heavily on Ray Graham, who is now out for the year. Zach Brown is a capable backup, and wide receivers Devin Street and Mike Shanahan are more than capable as long as Tino Sunseri can get them the ball. If WVU wants to hold serve at home, which is more important, shutting down the run, or putting the clamps on the passing game?
CH: Pitt has been able to run the ball adequately without the loss of Graham, so the biggest thing the Mountaineers need to do is rattle Tino. When that's happened, Pitt hasn't been able to do much of anything because teams have figured out they can stack the box. I fully expect Pitt to come out with the same game plan they've had the past few weeks - run the ball, throw short to intermediate passes, and mix in a few trick plays. What West Virginia needs to do is take away those short passes. When Sunseri has been able to complete short dump passes (which can turn into big games because of Pitt's skill players) and mix in a few scrambles, he's successful. But Tino has had virtually no success with a deep ball and if the Mountaineers jump routes and shut down the short passing plays, Pitt's offense will be in big trouble.
CR: The Panthers just keep running out stud defensive linemen. This year, Brandon Lindsey and Aaron Donald are the headliners, leading Pitt to a lofty national ranking in sacks per game. What's the secret to that type of defensive success? At this point, it has to be more than just scheme, right?
CH: Yeah, definitely not just a scheme. Pitt switched to a 3-4 this season after playing a 4-3 under Dave Wannstedt and we've still seen good production from that unit. Pitt has simply done a good job of recruiting good players. I hate to say it's as easy as that, but I really believe that's it. Even guys like Greg Romeus that weren't highly-recruited have found ways to thrive at Pitt and I think it's a matter of finding players that are skilled even if they're not highly ranked. But like anything else, Pitt has had its misses in the defensive line. And while they've picked out lots of gems on the line, they've had some misses with linebackers. But when it comes to the defensive line, Pitt has definitely had some good ones in recent years.
CR: Who is the one defensive player that needs to have a great game if Pitt is to pull the upset in Morgantown? Lindsey and Donald seem to be easy answers, but could it be someone else like a Max Gruder or a defensive back instead?
CH: I have a hard time seeing Pitt win this game in a shootout and if Pitt's going to win, they're going to need some big plays on defense. Brandon Lindsey's a guy that got off to a great start, but has really fallen off the map a bit lately. He started out right where he left off last season and had four sacks through five games, but over the past four, he's only had 1 1/2. It's not just about sacks, either. Lindsey hasn't been able to get hurries on the quarterback nearly as much this season. The obvious thing to look at is the fact that Lindsey racked up those sack totals earlier this year because he was playing linebacker. After freshman Juan Price stepped in at that position, Lindsey went to the line and has had trouble in the 3-4. Aaron Donald's brought it all season and Lindsey in my mind is the one guy that needs a big game. Donald can't win the game by himself, but if Lindsey gives him some help, an upset is possible.
CR: The line favors WVU by 7.5 at the moment, and I can't find an over/under. Who ya got, and where would you set the over/under?
CH: In watching West Virginia lose to LSU, I still thought Pitt didn't have the athleticism to beat the Mountaineers. Seeing West Virginia struggle a bit since then, I've come around to the fact that Pitt can be competitive in this one. And after 13-9 a few years ago, that game should have taught us that anything is possible in this series. I'm also not all that impressed with some of the big numbers West Virginia's defense has given up to teams like Maryland, Syracuse, Louisville, and Rutgers. That said, I still think West Virginia will be just too tough for Pitt playing at home. I wouldn't be terribly surprised by a Pitt win, but West Virginia, in my mind, is a better team this year and the home field gives them that much more of an advantage. If the game were at Heinz Field (yeah, I know - that worked out real well last year), I'd feel a bit better about Pitt's chances. But in Morgantown, I've got to go with West Virginia in a close one. On the over/under, I don't know if we'll see as many points as we expected coming into the season. I'd go with about 50.