The Backyard Brawl returns Thursday, Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.
The 11-year hiatus comes to an end when West Virginia takes the 74.5-mile trip to Acrisure Stadium to face their most heated rival, the 17th-ranked Pittsburgh Panthers. The rivalry resumes the Mountaineers’ oldest continuous series, dating back to 1895.
Much has changed in that time. Pitt is no longer called the Western University of Pennsylvania, 70 men have manned the sidelines as either team’s head coach, Nike checks pepper each program’s gear, and most strikingly, the Panthers and the Mountaineers compete in separate leagues.
One main thing remains the same, however: the animosity felt between the two programs. A quick stroll through social media this week demonstrates just how the two fanbases feel about one another and the two coaches, WVU’s Neal Brown and Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi, expect that emotion to play out on the field on Thursday.
“We know they’ll come up, there’s a lot of hatred on their end — but there’s got to be a lot of hate on our end,” Narduzzi said on Monday. “That’s what it comes down to in rivalry games.”
The 11-year break means that none of the players in this year’s game have any direct experience with the rivalry. Some, like WVU defensive lineman and legacy Dante Stills, have foggy memories of the latter years of the game, but this will be everyone’s first Backyard Brawl. Others, like linebacker Lee Kpogba and tight end Brian Polendey, have played against the Panthers in their college careers, albeit in a different uniform.
Both teams have plenty of experience to lean on, though, and Brown hopes that past playing time will help his team weather the heavy feelings coming from outside.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys that have played football. Not all of them have played necessarily at WVU….You look at across the board, like we’ve got guys outside of a couple guys on defense that have played,” Brown said on Monday. “Your expectation as a coach is that if guys have played, they’re going to have a maturity level to understand — to not get too high going into a contest.”
Here are some of the storylines that will define the 105th edition of the Backyard Brawl:
Battle of the big-name QBs
Although this game will be played just a few hundred miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the city of Los Angeles has its metaphorical fingerprints all over it, or more specifically, those of the University of Southern California.
Graham Harrell will call the WVU offense for the first time after joining the Mountaineers from USC in January in one of the splash coordinator moves of the offseason. Even since the spring season, the new coordinator has gotten great reviews from both coaches and players.
All eyes will be on the quarterback battle on the field, which also features two former trojans: JT Daniels of WVU and Kedon Slovis of WVU. Daniels, a former five-star arm talent and All-Pac 12 honoree, was usurped by Slovis in his sophomore year after injuries hampered his season. He moved on to Georgia, where again injuries cost him his starting role.
Daniels remained one of the premier arm talents in the country as he entered the transfer portal for a second time. He eventually picked West Virginia, setting up the clash with Slovis.
“He puts it in a place where you have a chance to make a play on it every time,” said WVU wide receiver Bryce Ford-Wheaton.
Slovis left Los Angeles after two regressive seasons at USC in which both his yardage and completion percentage took a dip, while his interception numbers increased. He too was hampered by injuries and lost his starting job to Jaxson Dart in November.
The difficult trench battle
WVU offensive line coach Matt Moore was clear in the fall about Pitt’s defensive line: he believes it will be the best WVU will face all season.
“Every one of my guys are going to have to play their A-game to be able to stay in that stadium with those guys,” he said.
The Panthers’ top three sack-getters return for 2022, two of whom — Calijah Kancey and Habakkuk Baldonado, were All-ACC selections in 2021. Kancey was a first-team nominee after logging seven sacks and 13 tackles-for-loss at the tackle spot.
“Kancey, they do a nice job of moving him around,” Brown said. “His first step, he’s really tough.”
Baldonado led the Panthers on the edge and finished 2021 with nine sacks en route to a second-team bid. The redshirt senior from Rome, Italy is a big, physical presence at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds that can be difficult to keep out of the backfield.
“I think his length to the field makes it really difficult,” Brown added. “He gets his hands on a bunch of balls and he can rush the passer.”
The Panthers will look to primarily stuff WVU’s run game, and on the flip side, it’s WVU’s offensive line’s job to get it going. The Mountaineers bring a wealth of experience to the line, returning all five starters while adding some more bodies to the mix.
In total, Brown will filter in seven offensive linemen throughout the game.
“They’re talented,” Narduzzi said.
Thursday’s kickoff between West Virginia and No. 17 Pitt is set for 7 p.m. ET on ESPN at Acrisure Stadium. Gameday starts earlier, though, as hosts Nick Farrell and Anjelica Trinone get you primed for the clash with a special edition of Mountaineer GameDay, airing at 4 p.m. ET on your local Nexstar Station and 5 p.m. ET on WBOY and AT&T SportsNet.