By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
What could be the last edition of the Backyard Brawl and what will certainly be the final game in Milan Puskar Stadium for 22 West Virginia University seniors will take place at 7 o’clock tonight on ESPN.
The game is actually an elimination game in the Big East Conference race with West Virginia and Pitt each with a 3-2 conference record. Both must win out to have a shot at the title, WVU also needing a Louisville loss to clinch the crown and the BCS bowl bid.
This is the 104th renewal between these two border rivals, Pittsburgh owning a 69-31-3 advantage.
The two teams have met every year since 1946 and the series is rich in history, but the two schools are parting company. WVU is heading for the Big 12, perhaps as early as next season, and Pittsburgh is moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference, perhaps also next year but more than likely in 27 months.
Both sides seem to want to continue the rivalry, but there will be major scheduling conflicts and if WVU leaves for next season there figures to be at least a few years until they can work out the next game.
The game will serve as a salute to a senior class that recorded 34 victories, including three nine-win seasons, three bowl appearances and top 25 rankings.
Holgorsen took time out this week to praise the class and the way it handled the transition from Bill Stewart to him.
“This is the last time they will play here. Any time there is transition, seniors are affected more than anyone. I have tremendous amounts of respect for Najee (Goode), Keith (Tandy), Julian Miller, Don Barclay and Tyler Rader. There is a big list of them. We owe them a victory. It isn’t about those 16 guys though. Everyone has to do their best to go out and get a victory.”
This year’s class includes: Soraya Aisien-Ogbebor (IR), Don Barclay (OL), Hunter Bittner (LB), Brantwon Bowser (DB), Devon Brown (IR), Josh Contraguerro (LB), Najee Goode (LB), Bruce Irvin (DE), Ricky Kovatch (FB), Willie Milhouse (WR), Julian Miller (DL), Cody Nutter (LS), Steve Paskorz (LB), Tyler Rader (OL), Eain Smith (DB), Chad Snodgrass (OL), Brad Starks (WR), Keith Tandy (DB), Josh Taylor (DL), Casey Vance (LB), Tyler Urban (IR) and Coley White (IR).
The game matches two bitter coaching rivals in WVU’s Dana Holgorsen and Pitt’s Todd Graham, a one-time co-defensive coordinator at West Virginia under Rich Rodriguez. The two met three times when Graham was head coach at Tulsa and Holgorsen offensive coordinator at Houston and Oklahoma State, Holgorsen winning all three games and scoring 70, 65 and 46 points on Graham’s team.
Holgorsen at one point charged Graham with “cheating” by having his players fake injuries to slow his tempo.
Both coaches have since said the feud was overblown.
“It is completely irrelevant with this game,” Holgorsen said. “It is blown out of proportion.”
Both coaches understand how much this game means, Graham having the unique view of having been on both sides of it.
“Like I told the players, this is why you coach and why you play — to play in games like this. This is my first Backyard Brawl as a head football coach, and I am extremely excited. Not only because of the rivalry, but the bowl and conference championship implications of this game make it big,” he said.
“Obviously, we have a huge challenge. They have the number one offense in the league. Geno Smith is very impressive. He can make every throw; he extends plays and he is a tremendous player — one of the best in the country,” he continued.
“They have a great receiving corps. Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey really stick out to me. Austin’s ability to return kicks and punts is phenomenal. Those two are as good as there are in the country. They are extremely fast and explosive. Our biggest challenge is containing their offense.”
Pitt comes into the game without its star running back Ray Graham, who was second in the nation and leading the Big East when he injured his knee and was put out for the season.
“You do not replace Ray Graham. He is one of the better backs in the country. He is fantastic,” Holgorsen said.
That put a load on quarterback Tino Sunseri and he has responded.
“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,” Holgorsen said.
Pitt’s defense is one of the best in the Big East at harassing quarterbacks and they will be coming hard after WVU’s Smith, who needs 111 yards to break Marc Bulger’s single-season record for passing yardage.
Bailey also is on the verge of breaking a record, needing just seven yards to pass David Saunders’ single-season record for receiving yards.
West Virginia finishes the regular season next Thursday with a game at South Florida.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.