MORGANTOWN -Don't ask West Virginia head coach Bill Stewart about the Big East this week.
"For 11 weeks, I've been asked about the Big East and in most of those 11 weeks, I've been asked about Pitt," said Stewart. "Well, Pitt's here, and I don't want to talk about the Big East. I want to talk about Pitt.
"The only thing on my horizon is Pitt, Pitt, Pitt. I'm trying to keep the players focused on Pitt, too."
Unfortunately, however, for the third-year coach, talking about Pitt means talking about the Big East these days with the winner of Friday's noon showdown in the 103rd playing of the "Backyard Brawl" will, in all likelihood, be the conference's champion and earn its automatic berth into the Bowl Championship Series.
"Both teams have very good defenses," continued the coach. "Our guys are playing well, and Pitt is playing really well. It's going to be a real battle."
The last three contests have been decided by four or fewer points with the winning team scoring only 19 points twice-a 19-15 win by the Panthers in 2008 and a 19-16 WVU decision last year in Morgantown-and Pitt coming out on top by a 13-9 score to end the 2007 season and cost the Mountaineers a trip to the national championship game.
West Virginia (7-3) at Pitt (6-4)
Game Time: Friday, Noon
Where: Heinz Field The Line: Pitt by 2.
The Series: Pitt , 61-38-3.
Television: ABC (Beth Mowins, play-by-play; Ray Bentley, Analyst; Quint Kessenich, Sideline); Radio: Mountaineer Sports Network (Tony Caridi, Play-by-Play, Dwight Wallace, Analyst, Hoppy Kercheval, Host, Jed Drenning, Sideline)
Notes: The Mountaineers are 13-7-1 in their last 21 games with the Panthers. ... West Virginia's Noel Devine is No. 2 nationally among active players in rushing yards, No. 4 in yards per carry, and No. 6 in all-purpose yards. ..l.. Pitt's Dion Lewis has 1,138 fewer yards rushing than he ended last season with. ... Panthers receiver Jon Baldwin has nearly 500 fewer receiving yards than at the end of last season. ... In WVU's last 10 victories against the Panthers, it has scored 391 points. In their last 10 losses to the Panthers, the Mountaineers have scored 152 points.
"It means everything to me," senior defensive lineman Scooter Berry explained. "I'm pretty sure you guys know that because I did cry on national TV last year (after WVU's win).
"It feels good to play in this rivalry, and I'm looking forward to Friday. I hope everyone else is, too."
Both defenses enter nationally ranked in several categories as West Virginia's prevent unit is No. 4 in both scoring (12.9 ppg) and rushing (88.0 ypg) defense while the Panthers are 19th (19.2 ppg) and 16th (115.2), respectively, in those two categories.
Pittsburgh (6-4, 4-1 Big East) ranks 20th overall in passing defense, allowing 187.4 yards per game, while WVU (7-3, 3-2 Big East) is eighth, giving up 157.1 yards a game.
Numbers which make most observers believe the game will be a repeat of the last three.
"I really don't know," said Stewart. "It hasn't been lately, and it's probably been a few years since either team has put up a lot (of points). We'll see how the ball bounces. I'm sure they'll play hard, and we will too."
Pitt will rely on the running of Ray Graham, who leads the team with an 89.3 yards per game norm, and last year's leader Dion Lewis, who carried the ball 26 times for 155 yards in a losing cause last November at Mountaineer Field.
West Virginia will counter with senior Noel Devine, who is averaging only 82.6 yards per game since injuring his toe in the loss at LSU, and the sophomore duo of Ryan Clarke and Shawne Alston.
Devine and Clarke accounted for the Mountaineers' two touchdowns in a 17-10 win at Papa John'sStadium last Saturday while Alston has proven to be the old gold and blue's most reliable rusher in the fourth quarter in wins over Cincinnati (37-10) and the Cardinals.
Should either team elect to go to the air to get points on the scoreboard it will have to rely on the arm, and decision making, of a first-year starting quarterback.
Sophomore Tito Sunseri has completed 172-of-258 attempts for 2,034 yards and 14 touchdowns with only six interceptions while WVU will counter with sophomore Geno Smith under center-187-of-293 for 2,003 yards and 19 touchdowns with six interceptions.
"Both manage the ball, the clock and the chains very well," explained Stewart. "They both have live arms, are good, balanced throwers and make good decisions. They both can run the football when they need to and can evade trouble and the sack."
They also each have talented receivers to throw to as well.
The Panthers are led by Jon Baldwin's 42 catches for 677 yards and five touchdowns, but WVU's secondary will also have to be wary of Mike Shanahan (35-481, 1 TD), Devin Street (18-247, 1 TD) and Henry Hynoski (18-129, 1 TD) while the Panthers' defensive backfield will have to concern itself with Jock Sanders (54-519, 4 TDs), Tavon Austin (45-553, 5 TDs), Bradley Starks (17-261, 4 TDs) and Stedman Bailey (17-231, 3 TDs).