By Dave Morrison
Register-Herald Sports Writer
There are too many storylines to count going into this, the 104th edition of the annual Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia tonight at Milan Puskar Stadium
The game, which kicks off at 7 p.m., will be televised nationally on ESPN.
The storylines make this the most anticipated Backyard Brawl since the 2007 edition, a 13-9 WVU loss that cost the Mountaineers a shot at the national championship game. And the storylines following that — Rich Rodriguez’s leaving for Michigan prior to the Fiesta Bowl — actually trumped the actual game.
There are many more heading into this game.
n The Stakes: West Virginia and Pitt are two of five Big East teams with two losses (both at 3-2). They trail Louisville and Rutgers by a half-game. For West Virginia the task is simple. Beat Pitt and South Florida on Dec. 1 and hope Louisville falls to South Florida today at 11 a.m. (ESPN2).
n The coaches: WVU’s Dana Holgorsen and Pitt’s Todd Graham have a tenuous relationship dating back to their days in Conference USA, where Holgorsen once accused Graham’s Tulsa team of faking injuries while he was at Houston.
n The records: Quarterback Geno Smith is six completions and 110 yards from breaking Marc Bulger’s season records established in 1998. And receiver Stedman Bailey, who has 57 catches for 1,037 yards, is just seven yards from breaking David Saunders’ record for yardage in a season, set in 1996. Receiver Tavon Austin is six from breaking Saunders’ reception record for a season (Austin has 72 catches for 907 yards).
n The seniors: it will be the final game at Milan Puskar Stadium for 16 WVU seniors. Getting a win over the hated Panthers would be a great way to go out.
n The conference: It could be the last meeting between the schools, with WVU headed to the Big 12 and Pitt the ACC. But there is talk between the schools about making this annual event a nonconference game.
And the backdrop for all this is the Backyard Brawl.
Pitt comes in at 5-5 overall and with an outstanding chance of making its own run at the Big East title.
“Our goal is to win championships,” said Graham, the former West Virginia co-defensive coordinator under Rodriguez. “That is what our goal as a program is. Everybody has two losses. We are going into this game understanding that we are in first place. If we win the next two games the worst we are going to be is co-champions.”
And they are making a run at it without Ray Graham, who was injured early in the Connecticut game Oct. 26 after putting up All-American-like numbers in the first seven games of the season (164 carries, 958 yards, nine touchdowns).
He has been replaced by the duo of Wisconsin transfer Zach Brown (67-269-4) and Isaac Bennett (19-95-1).
“I think they make a good tandem,” coach Graham said. “We are trying to get Isaac to complement Zach like Zach complemented Ray Graham. He has done a great job. Zach has played solid in every game and Isaac has come in and done a good job as well. We have a lot of confidence in both those guys. Isaac is really doing a good job and we are excited to see him break a big one.”
Quarterback Tino Sunseri has stepped up his game in Graham’s absence, completing 191 of 300 passes for 2,037 yards with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. He has also added 146 yards rushing and four touchdowns.
“You do not replace Ray Graham,” Holgorsen said. “He is one of the better backs in the country. He is fantastic. It has elevated Tino’s game since Ray has been out. Tino has been the leader of the offense. He is a coach’s kid and has elevated his game.”
Top Pitt receivers are Devin Street (39-572-2) and Mike Shanahan (30-395-4).
West Virginia’s offense revolves around Holgorsen’s uptempo spread. The junior quarterback has completed 269 of 417 passes for 3,497 yards with 24 TDs and five interceptions.
Graham is impressed by Smith and his receiving corps.
“I think he does a really good job,” Graham said. “He has got a tremendous rapport with his receivers, especially Bailey and Austin. He knows where they are going to be and they have great timing. They are really good. They are two of the better receivers in the country.”
Dustin Garrison leads WVU with 600 yards rushing on 109 carries with five touchdowns, while Shawne Alston has 61 carries for 298 yards and eight touchdowns.
Holgorsen noted the need for better blocking down the stretch.
“You have to block people,” Holgorsen said. “I have said for a while that coach (Bill) Bedenbaugh has done a good job of targeting things right. We have to do a better job of holding up our blocks. When they do bring blitzes, that is when Geno has to adjust and get the ball out of his hands.”