If you ask Pitt defensive end Jabaal Sheard, the Backyard Brawl has always been about defense.

Despite recent games this decade that featured the likes of Pat White, Steve Slaton, Larry Fitzgerald and LeSean McCoy, Sheard said it’s about defense and which team can do it better. The rivalry’s most famous game suggests he’s right.

In a game all Pitt and West Virginia fans remember, the Panthers derailed the Mountaineers’ BCS National Championship Game hopes with a 13-9 win in 2007 on the best Pitt tackling effort in recent memory.

Such is why coach Dave Wannstedt has one thing on his mind regarding the defensive side of the ball this week.

“There’s no question, on defense it’s tackling,” Wannstedt said. “I think when we beat ‘em the last couple times we have (tackled well). I think one year we had seven missed tackles and the other year we had three. Because of their quickness and because of their athletic ability, that will be a (priority).”

Defensive line play will likely have a lot to do with the outcome as both Pitt and West Virginia feature some of the nation’s best. Sheard (9 sacks) and Brandon Lindsey (10 sacks) for the Panthers and Bruce Irvin (10 sacks) for the Mountaineers all rank in the top 10 nationally in sacks.

Accordingly, WVU is No. 4 in the country in total defense and Pitt is close behind at No. 12.

With such a high rate of success, Sheard hopes for the outcome to fall on the defense’s shoulders.

“They have tremendous athletes on both sides of the ball,” Sheard said. “The quarterback can even run. They’re so fast and talented. For our defense just to slow them down, if we could have a defensive game I’d put it on our back and I think we can win it.”

Stopping quarterback Geno Smith and play makers like Noel Devine, Tavon Austin and Jock Sanders will be a top priority for the Panthers Friday in the 103rd Backyard Brawl.

Both Wannstedt and Sheard noted Smith’s evolution as a quarterback in this, his first year as the WVU starter. His game has transformed from being primarily a drop-back passer to now being able to both throw and run effectively. The Mountaineers show teams several different looks offensively — two-back offense, I-formation, spread — which requires a lot of preparation for opposing defenses.

And with so much diversity, Devine, Austin and Sanders sometimes find quite a bit of room to run free.

“You have to defend both,” Wannstedt said. “You have to defend the quarterback run game and you need to defend them lining up with fullback, tailback and pounding the football. They’ve always done that — even when Pat White was there, Slaton was there — they really have the same offense.”

So an effort similar to that of 2007 is in order. If the Panthers are able to do so, they’ll inch one step closer to the Big East title — something all too elusive the last couple years.

“The Big East is on the line,” Sheard said. “It’s like a playoff game — you lose you go home. The last two years we’ve been in the situation where we had the Big East and we lost it right before our eyes.

“I refuse to let it happen again this year.”

Chris Gates | Area 4-1-Zoo Blog

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