PITTSBURGH — The layers of the Pitt vs. West Virginia rivalry — from the closeness in the contrasting environments surrounding each school to the tough, no-nonsense attitude the entire region hopes to embody — combine to make for a bitter clash on the gridiron. This game is simply different and requires increased focus and energy from its participants.
There are very immediate and concrete concerns for the Panthers as kickoff approaches, but other than that, normal scheme study and technique adjustment is a crash course in what this game is all about. The significance of a clash between the Panthers and Mountaineers might not fully register for a 19-year-old player who was too young to remember the scrimmage at its height, but it does for their older coaches.
Pitt defensive coordinator Randy Bates — who grew up almost 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 him,” Bates said. “I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it, I’ve never been to a game, but my dad was the 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, so I know how they go.”
Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti has dug himself even deeper into the fray. He was born in Pittsburgh, spent part of his childhood in Morgantown as the son of a Mountaineers 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 importance 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 living in Morgantown. … We’ve been on both sides of the rivalry… This game has always been special.”
Cignetti and Bates know what to expect. A sold-out Acrisure Stadium hosts Pitt on Thursday night. Anticipation has been building ever since the series’ renewal was announced 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 rage is a liability.
“We tend to play with emotion on defense,” Bates said. “We don’t want to be emotional, but we want to play with emotion. That’s the way I train, that’s the way our staff trains and that’s the way the players play.”
To prepare his players, Bates and the coaching staff have reminded them of a shortcoming from last season — a 38-34 home loss to Miami in which the Panthers entered the “emotional” territory that Bates and coach Pat Narduzzi they are afraid.
“You want to have extra juice, but you also have to have your composure,” Narduzzi said. “It’s a scrimmage, a fight. But you have to keep your composure. We didn’t have a lot of composure against Miami last year, personal mistakes that got me upset. And not get out of control.”
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’ve shown them clips of experiences they’ve had in the past and honestly, the nice thing is when you have as many guys coming back, those kids have been in those situations where they were probably very emotional at one point,” said Bates. . “You can tell them that and let them learn from it.”
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