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Last call for the Backyard Brawl?

MORGANTOWN - There are plenty of things at stake tonight when West Virginia and Pitt meet for the 104th time in the Backyard Brawl.

Not the least of those is positioning in the race for the Big East championship and a potential BCS bowl berth.

Both the Mountaineers (7-3, 3-2 Big East) and the Panthers (5-5, 3-2) need a win to have any realistic chance, but even a win won't guarantee much. Both teams still have a game to play and there are three other two-loss teams in league play.

From West Virginia's standpoint, the best things that can happen today are a win over Pitt tonight (7 p.m. kickoff, ESPN), following a loss by Louisville earlier in the day (11 a.m., ESPN2) at South Florida. That would clear the way for the Mountaineers to play South Florida next Thursday in Tampa with a BCS bowl berth on the line.

Pitt's path is a bit more complicated. The Panthers would lose tiebreakers to both Rutgers and Cincinnati, so in addition to winning out (Pitt closes the season a week from Saturday at home against Syracuse) they may need a little more help.

But while the immediate concerns surrounding tonight's Backyard Brawl are practical, there is another issue hanging over the game. Quite simply, it could be the last one for a while.

Both schools are heading to new conferences - WVU to the Big 12 and Pitt to the ACC. West Virginia's move could happen as soon as next season, depending upon two lawsuits involving the school and the Big East. Pitt isn't expected to make its move to the ACC for at least a year or two.

But if West Virginia gets out of the Big East right away, there may not be a way to work out a non-conference game between the two, at least not right away given existing contracts. That's something that doesn't sit well with almost everyone.

"It's all about the past players. It's about tradition,'' WVU safeties coach Steve Dunlap said. "You don't get tradition in five or six years. It's over the long haul. You're talking about a hundred years. There's a lot of coaches and players that came before me. And we feel responsible to do our best and win the game for those guys. It's ingrained in you and it always has been. And you don't want to see it end.''

Dunlap has a unique perspective on the rivalry because he grew up in West Virginia, played in one of the most iconic Backyard Brawls of all time and has coached in it more than 20 times. He certainly doesn't want to see it come to an end and hopes there are like minds among those who make such decisions.

"Well, you know, Oliver Luck played here, too,'' Dunlap said, referring to the WVU athletic director. "He feels the same way the rest of us do.''

Through all the years of watching, playing in and coaching in the Backyard Brawl, one game still stands out. Dunlap was the middle linebacker for the Mountaineers in 1975 when West Virginia won over Tony Dorsett and the Panthers at old Mountaineer Field. Bill McKenzie kicked a field goal on the game's last play for a 17-14 win.

"Bill McKenzie's still my hero,'' Dunlap said. "That's the game I'll always remember. We all ran on the field and jumped on that pile and I about suffocated. The whole team was out there and I was on the bottom of that pile.''

Dunlap isn't alone in wanting to see the rivalry continue. Even a guy like defensive end Bruce Irvin, who has played in only one and has just one left, thinks it would be a shame to see it end.

"It wouldn't be fair to the players or the fans or the players who came before us,'' Irvin said. "When you come here you learn about the rivalry with Pitt. J.T. Thomas let me know about it the first day I got here. It's part of the program.''

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com.


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