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November 24, 2011

Week 13 preview in the Big East

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The two first-year coaches in the Backyard Brawl have spent most of their careers coaching in Texas and Oklahoma, but they won't need any primer on how to build bad blood in the Pittsburgh-West Virginia rivalry.

They already have a bit of history, even if both coaches say any past disputes are irrelevant.

THE SCHEDULE
FRIDAY
Louisville at USF, 11 a.m.
Pittsburgh at West Virginia, 7 p.m.
SATURDAY
Rutgers at Connecticut, noon
Cincinnati at Syracuse, noon
Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham and West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen both say they have a "tremendous respect" for the other - yes, they both used that exact phrase - and that their previous back-and-forths occurred in the heat of competition.

Perhaps the history of the two coaches isn't a big deal, but it's still an intriguing subplot to the Big East's biggest football rivalry.

"It's called competitive spirit," Holgorsen said. "It's called doing everything you can to put kids in competitive situations. The media is making a big deal that we've had competitive games."

[The Forde-Yard Dash: Healthy holiday hatred with rivalry games]

When Holgorsen was the offensive coordinator at Houston and Graham was coach at Tulsa, Holgorsen accused Graham and his staff of signaling players to fake or embellish injuries in a 46-45 Houston win in 2009. Graham denied it, telling reporters "we do things the right way."

The next season, Holgorsen was coordinator at Oklahoma State, and the Cowboys rolled up 722 yards in routing Tulsa 65-28.

Since both coaches arrived in the Big East during the offseason and since Holgorsen was elevated to coach a year ahead of schedule, the two coaches have been cordial at Big East events. Holgorsen called Graham "a friend."

"This game is not about stuff like that," Graham said. "It's about West Virginia and Pitt. We spoke at the meetings just like everyone else.

"One thing I believe in is sportsmanship. We have been competitors and we have been intense competitions, and there is nothing wrong with that. He's a tough one to go against, I can tell you that."

Graham also has four former West Virginia assistants from the Rich Rodriguez era on his staff: secondary coach Tony Gibson, co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph, co-offensive coordinator Calvin Magee and tight ends coach Tony Dews. And Graham was a defensive assistant in Morgantown from 2001-03.

The competition also spills into recruiting. Both coaches have said they want to make western Pennsylvania a key recruiting territory.

In the near future, the rivalry might take place only in recruiting. With Pitt leaving the Big East for the ACC and West Virginia leaving for the Big 12, perhaps as soon as next season, the future of the Backyard Brawl is in question.

West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck said he wants to maintain the game, but the programs' complicated exits from the Big East could be a speed bump in the process.

For now, this season's meeting should deliver enough drama.

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West Virginia and Pitt are two of five teams still vying for the Big East's BCS bid, and the "Backyard Brawl" is the only game remaining between any of the five contenders. A win may not clinch anything, but a loss could be devastating in the league race.

"The winner of this game is sitting in a good spot as far as the conference championship is concerned," Graham said. "That is my feeling on it, but I can only worry about things I can control. This is the 2011 Backyard Brawl and that is important enough."

Best matchup: West Virginia's pass offense vs. Pitt's pass defense. The Panthers' defense has recovered since Iowa gouged it for 399 yards in a fourth-quarter comeback on Sept. 17. In the seven games since, Pitt's opponents have completed 53.7 percent of their passes for 188.7 yards per game. Meanwhile, Pitt is fifth in the nation in sacks with 3.2 per game (yet third in the Big East). WVU QB Geno Smith will test Pitt's ability to contain the passing game, and the Panthers pass rush will test a vulnerable Mountaineers' line.

Players on the spot: Cincinnati QB Munchie Legaux. Last week, we had Bearcats TB Isaiah Pead in this spot - and he struggled because Cincinnati had trouble throwing the ball and Rutgers clamped down on the run. Earlier this week, Bearcats coach Butch Jones said Legaux would have to compete for the starting job with reserves Jordan Luallen and Brendon Kay. Legaux most likely gets the start, but he needs to play better against a Syracuse team returning from a bye week. The last time Syracuse played after a bye, the Orange shocked West Virginia 49-23. The pressure isn't all on Legaux; Cincinnati's receivers dropped five passes in the loss to Rutgers.

Keep an eye on: USF's quarterback situation. Starting QB B.J. Daniels left Saturday's loss to Miami with a bruised AC joint in his throwing shoulder, putting his status for Friday's game against Louisville in doubt. Backup Bobby Eveld was ineffective in relief, going 5-of-9 for 36 yards. Eveld has experience as a late-season replacement: He subbed for an injured Daniels in the final game and a half last season. Eveld was 30-of-56 passes for 315 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions in those games.

Numbers game: Five Big East teams remain in contention for the league's BCS bid: Louisville, Rutgers (both 4-2), Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and West Virginia (all 3-2). The race for the top is so muddy that no Big East team controls its own destiny - as in, each of the five teams needs someone else to lose to clinch a BCS bid. Louisville can clinch a BCS bid this week if it beats USF and Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Cincinnati lose.

Quotes of the week

"Coach Casteel said when you signed that letter of intent to come here, no matter where you're from ... you came to beat Pitt." - WVU LB Najee Goode, relaying what coordinator Jeff Casteel told the defense

"We're right in the thick of [a BCS bowl bid], but I don't want to address it. I don't know if we are mature enough to handle that right now." - Louisville coach Charlie Strong

[Related: Rivals.com 2011 bowl projections]

"He has all of the critical characteristics that you need to play the wide receiver position. He can make the awkward, out-of-position catches. He catches the ball when it's behind him, when it's in front of him. He is the quarterback's best friend. He has got terrific hands and a terrific kinesthetic sense. Secondly, he has excellent size. He's a big guy and he's a physical receiver. I would also put him in the category of being a really good route runner. He is crafty in how he does it, and explosive." - Connecticut coach Paul Pasqualoni on Rutgers WR Mohamed Sanu, who became the Big East single-season leader in receptions two weeks ago. His 100 catches this season passed Pitt WR Larry Fitzgerald's 92 catches in 2003

Poll watch: The Big East does not have a team ranked in the BCS top 25, though West Virginia is ranked in both human polls (No. 23 in the coaches' poll, No. 24 in the Harris poll). Only three Big East teams have been ranked in any poll at any point this season: West Virginia, Cincinnati and USF. And no more than two have been ranked at the same time at any point this season.

Etc.: Syracuse suspended starting FS Phillip Thomas, the team's top tackler (82 stops) and Big East leader in interceptions (six), for one year for an undisclosed violation of athletic department policy. Despite rushing for only 33 yards on 10 carries against Louisville, Connecticut RB Lyle McCombs reached the 1,000-yard mark. He's the Big East rushing leader with 1,014 yards. He is the Huskies' fifth 1,000-yard rusher in the past four seasons. USF's 6-3 loss to Miami was the lowest-scoring game in Bulls history. The loss also was the first time this season USF failed to score first. Rutgers has won five of the past six against Connecticut. USF has won three of the past four games against Louisville. The Cardinals are 0-4 in Tampa. Louisville used CB Adrian Bushell as a kick returner Oct. 29, a move that paid off with a 100-yard return for a touchdown last week against Connecticut. Louisville's other kickoff returners are averaging 19.8 yards per return. Syracuse's 31-7 win over Cincinnati last season snapped a five-game losing streak to the Bearcats. Syracuse WR Alec Lemon has 19 catches for 336 yards and three touchdowns in the past two games.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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