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November 26, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN - Much at stake for WVU today

PITTSBURGH — The talking is over, the hype history.

It’s time to get it on.

Pitt and West Virginia University, Backyard Brawl No. 103.

Need anything more be said.

The weather? Well, they say it may be raw, may be wet, may even snow a little.

Would you have it any other way?

“We have to go out and play, whether it’s snowing or raining or the sun is shining,” said West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith.

Of course, Heinz Field is famous for its bad footing, for real grass that never seems to take root. It can be as slick as an ice rink, as muddy as the Mississippi River.

“Field condition is only a little bump in the road,” said WVU running back Shawne Alston, who may get a lot more playing time in this one than in any other game this year, especially if the going is muddy.

As so often happens, much rides on the outcome of this game. Again, as it was last year, more is at stake for WVU. A year ago Pitt had nothing to gain, nothing to lose playing WVU, having to beat Cincinnati in the final game to win the Big East.

It lost to WVU and it lost to Cincinnati by a point.

This year Pitt has but one conference defeat, WVU and Connecticut two. If Pitt wins and UConn loses, Pitt is conference champion. If both win, they go into the final week of the season with Pitt needing to win while UConn loses because UConn has the tiebreaker with Pitt.

West Virginia? It has to win out and hope UConn loses a game, for the Huskies hold the tiebreaker over them, too.

That is why this week has been one fraught with tension in the WVU camp.

“You can feel the intensity, especially in Coach Stew’s presence,” Alston said.

One can only imagine. Bill Stewart may need to win this game to keep his job, or at least that of his offensive coordinator, for the offense has underproduced, Noel Devine has disappeared and the best defense maybe in America could be robbed of an important national stage if it doesn’t make a BCS bowl game.

Stewart has hinted that this week he may go more to the bigger Alston than he has, in part because Devine has been nursing an ankle injury, the severity of which is being kept under lock and key. It has been obvious that Devine, thought to be a Heisman candidate entering the season but now limping toward 1,000 yards at the year’s end, has not been himself.

Tweaking the injury in the Louisville game did not help.

That means Alston may be a feature in the attack against Pitt’s 4-3 defense.

“I feel like I can do it, but at the same time different situations in the game call for different things,” said Alston, when asked if he would have liked to have played more this season. “Sometimes you have to get into a more fast-paced offense, when the coaches want to increase the tempo.

“The coaches know what’s going on, and they put personnel in for the way they want to address a situation.”

In the end, this game is going to be as it has been for the last three years when neither team could muster 20 points.

When asked what he thought was the key to the game, WVU receiver Jock Sanders, a veteran of those last three games, answered:

“I don’t say it’s the quarterbacks or the running backs. It’s the defensive lines. Look at their defensive line. Look at our defensive line. They both have great players on them. They had their best guy go down with injury and the guy who took his place has 10 sacks.

“If you look at it, it’s going to be a defensive game.”

It is a game for Chris Neild, the hearty WVU nose guard, and for Jabaal Sheard, Pitt’s do-everything defensive end.

It is a game that represents the two areas, the mines of West Virginia and the mills of Western Pennsylvania, a game where the two teams wear special uniforms, the Mountaineers decked out in Nike gear that honors the coal miners tragically trapped in the Upper Big Branch Mine earlier this year.

“There’s a purpose to wearing those uniforms. A couple of weeks ago (when WVU had lost two in a row before bouncing back against Cincinnati and Louisville) everyone was saying there wasn’t a purpose to it. Everyone had their heads down, but now there’s a purpose,” Sanders said. “I salute those guys out there who went through so much and those who are doing it now.”

Let’s let that be the final word. Let the Brawl begin.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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