The 100th renewal of the Backyard Brawl, the annual football game between Pitt and West Virginia, will take place Saturday at 7:45 p.m. at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, W.Va. and normally that would be enough to fan the flames in this heated rivalry.
However, there's much more at stake than local bragging rights and a recruiting edge. The host Mountaineers (10-1 overall and 5-1 in the Big East) are ranked second by the Associated Press, first by USA Today and second in the BCS standings, so they can clinch a berth in the BCS championship game and win the Conference with a victory against Pitt.
The Panthers (4-7, 2-4) are playing for pride in the finale of a third straight season that will end without them going to a bowl game. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt had just one main message to his players this week.
"Find a way to win this game and regardless of how many wins we have, you're talking about (an opponent) that some people have ranked No. 1 in the country,'' Wannstedt said. "In addition to the big rivalry, the 100th year, let's go down there and win this game, and that's what they'll remember about this season. So, it's a great opportunity.
"(But) there are plenty of reasons to be motivated to play this game. Every kid and maybe half the coaches haven't had a chance to play a team that's No. 1 or No. 2 in the country. That doesn't happen every day, and if you go down there and perform well and win the game, it's something you and everybody else will talk about for the rest of your life.''
Wannstedt has been part of this rivalry as a player, assistant coach and now head coach at Pitt, and he was even recruited by WVU coach Bobby Bowden before choosing the Panthers in 1970. For Pitt redshirt junior outside linebacker Adam Gunn from Kiski High School in the Pittsburgh area, it came down to the Panthers and WVU as his final two schools in 2004.
"So, this is always a big game for me,'' Gunn said. "And it's a huge game for all of us, a huge rivalry game, and everybody is looking forward to it. For me, I think this program here offers a lot more, and it's better for me as far as the coaches go and the facilities and everything else, really. That's why I chose to go to Pitt instead of West Virginia.
"But Morgantown is crazy, and their fans are one of the rowdiest groups. So, we have to focus on their players, because they're great, and we have to play really well to be successful against them. They're ranked No. 1 or No. 2, and we're going to go down there to give our best effort and hopefully that will be enough to get the job done. But I think we'll be ready to go.''
Pitt redshirt freshman defensive end Greg Romeus played scholastic football in Florida, so he had no knowledge about the intense rivalry between Pitt and West Virginia until he joined the Panthers last year. But it didn't take him long to figure out why the Mountaineers are reviled so much.
"Once I got here, I knew that Pitt-WVU was a big rivalry, and when you have one that's been going on a hundred years ... that really says it all,'' Romeus said. "But nobody had to tell me about it. You can read about it everywhere and just listen to what people talk about. It's a big game, and I'm glad to be part if it this season after watching the game last year.
"Of course, it's my first year playing them down there, but everybody talks about how crazy it gets and how loud it gets. So, I expect it to be even louder this week. It's going to be a great atmosphere, and we're looking forward to it. It's definitely a big game for both teams for a lot of reasons, and we're looking to go down there and play our best game of the season.''
The Panthers will have to do that without sophomore tight end Nate Byham, who injured a knee against South Florida and will have surgery this week. Redshirt sophomore John Pelusi (turf toe), who has missed the past three games, and senior Darrell Strong are listed as co-starters at tight end. Redshirt sophomore walk-on Dustin Walters is a backup as well. Wannstedt said that junior fullback Conredge Collins is another option there.
Notes: Pitt's last win in Morgantown was a 23-17 victory during the 2001 season. The Panthers last win against WVU overall was a 16-13 decision in 2004 at Heinz Field to clinch a Fiesta Bowl berth. ... This is Pitt's first game against a No. 1-ranked team since Nov. 21, 2002, when the Panthers lost 28-21 at top-rated Miami.