PITTSBURGH — The layers of the Pitt-West Virginia rivalry — from the proximity to the contrasting environments surrounding the two schools to the gritty, underdog attitude the entire region hopes to embody — combine to create a bitter gridiron clash. This game is simply different and requires increased focus and energy from the participants.
There are plenty of immediate and specific concerns for the Panthers as the kickoff looms, but in addition, the normal study of the scheme and fine-tuning of technique is a crash course in what this game means. The gravity of the clash between the Panthers and Mountaineers may not fully register for a 19-year-old player who was too young to remember the Brawl in its prime, but it does for their older coaches.
Pitt defensive coordinator Randy Bates — who grew up nearly equidistant from Pittsburgh and Morgantown in New Concord, Ohio — knows the Backyard Brawl intimately and has helped his players get up to speed.
“I know a lot about it,” Bates said. “I’ve seen it, I’ve watched it, I’ve never actually been to a game, but my dad was a coach and I watched the game every year. We know about the rivalry. It’s been a few years, but I’m old enough to remember those games to know how they go.”
Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti is even more deeply embedded in Brawl. He was born in Pittsburgh, spent part of his childhood in Morgantown as the son of a Mountaineer coach and is now in his second stint as the Panthers’ offensive coordinator. He has seen the rivalry from a number of different angles and is perhaps better qualified than anyone to talk about the meaning of the game.
“As a kid growing up in Morgantown, it was great. My dad became the head coach at West Virginia, my brother played at WVU. I have great memories of Mountaineer football and life in Morgantown… We have been on both sides of the rivalry. … This game was always special.”
Cignetti and Bates know what to expect. A sold-out Acrisure Stadium awaits Pitt on Thursday night. Anticipation has been building since the announcement of the series’ renewal in 2015, and the tension will reach a boiling point early on. Bates wants passion from his players but needs focus – energy is necessary but blind anger is a problem.
“We tend to play emotional on defense,” Bates said. “We don’t want to be emotional, but we want to play with emotion. That’s the way I coach, that’s the way the coaches on our staff and that’s the way the players play.”
To prepare their players, Bates and the coaching staff are reminding them of one blemish from last season — a 38-34 loss at home to Miami in which the Panthers veered into the “emotional” territory that Bates and head coach Pat Narduzzi fear .
“You want to have more juice, but you also have to have self-control,” Narduzzi said. “It’s a fight, a fight. But you have to keep your cool. We didn’t have a lot of composure against Miami last year, personal fouls that drove me crazy. I don’t want to get them too high because they have to play smart and not get out of hand.”
Make no mistake, the Panthers are confident, not hesitant. Bates believes his team has the maturity and big-game experience to handle the shock and awe of opening night under the lights with a bitter rival on the other side.
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“We showed them snippets of experiences they’ve had in the past and honestly, the good thing is when you have so many guys coming back, these kids have been in situations where they’ve probably been too emotional at some point,” Bates said . “You can show them that and let them learn from it.”
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