A Happy Thanksgiving weekend indeed, at least for the residents of the Mountain State!
West Virginia's decisive 35-10 victory against the arch-rival Pitt Panthers did wonders for Mountaineer spirits, and keeps the gold and blue alive in the hunt for a conference title. Obviously, the Mountaineers need help from the Cincinnati Bearcats or South Florida Bulls over the last two weeks of the season. It becomes even more aggravating to know that if Ryan Clarke had simply held onto the ball in overtime against UConn, it would be the Mountaineers, not the Huskies who controlled their own destiny. I was lucky to be in attendance for my first Backyard Brawl at Heinz Field, and it was a great trip, one that will be remembered by my crew for years to come. Looking back on the action on the field, here are some of my thoughts:
- West Virginia showed why turnovers are the most important statistic in football. WVU has shot itself in the foot all season giving the football back to their opponents repeatedly. Were it not for a few ill-advised passes against Syracuse and the flurry of fumbles against UConn, we're talking about the Mountaineers in a much different light. Yesterday, the Mountaineer defense hounded the Panthers and forced them to cough it up three times on the ground and once in the air. This game would have been a lot different if Brandon Hogan hadn't kicked it off with a big pick and return setting up the offense at the two for their first easy score of the day. West Virginia's offense wasn't as dominating as the scoreboard showed, it was their defense that set them up time and time again.
- As the Noel Devine-era draws to a close, we're witnessing a return to the classic Don Nehlen-style power runners in the backfield. Devine only carried the ball four times yesterday, which seems insane. On his only catch of the day he tore off a forty eight yards and set up the Mountaineers for another easy score, so he showed moments of flash, but generally wasn't a factor. Instead, Mullen and Stewart opted for the brusining tandem of Shawne Alston and Ryan Clarke, both of whom saw significant action. While Clarke got the touchdowns, it has been Alston who has been the greatest revelation of the last few weeks. It seems he has the bulk to pick up those extra couple yards that have been missing from Devine's inside running.
- While the grinders were grinding, Geno Smith wasn't really throwing it much. He had twelve attempts officially, but also eight rushes, most of which were failed pass plays. The offensive line makes Geno's job really hard and Jeff Mullen appears to be trying to mitigate the problems by relying less and less on his sophomore passer and more on his running game. When Mullen has a need for speed, he's much more successful getting the ball onto the perimeter with short passes to Jock Sanders and Tavon Austin, whose 71-yard touchdown was the offensive play of the day for the Mountaineers.
- Finally, this defense is for real. There's really no other way around it. Holding Pitt's offense to a mere ten points is a feat that cannot go understated. By being opportunistic on Friday afternoon, the Mountaineer defense repeatedly gave the offense great field position to work with. This defense may go down as one of the best in school history and has carried the water for this Mountaineer team for much of the season. Hopefully this unit will get some time in the limelight if the Huskies can drop one of their last two and propel the Mountaineers back to the BCS.