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Backyard Brawl gone, but links to rivalry remain

MORGANTOWN - It was by no means a long-standing tradition because the two schools went through so many changes over the years that schedules always seemed in flux.

The Backyard Brawl between West Virginia and Pitt was played in every month of the football calendar over its 104-year history, as early as August (twice, in 1991 and 1996) and as late as December (the infamous 2007 game).

It was actually played more times in October (51) than in any other month.

Still, of late the Backyard Brawl and Thanksgiving were pretty much synonymous. The game was played on this weekend of the year in each of the last four years and six of the last eight.

That it won't be this season seems a bit odd, especially to those who automatically tied the two together because they've never known anything else. Not a player on West Virginia's roster and virtually none of the coaches and staff have known anything other than playing Pitt on Thanksgiving weekend while at WVU.

"That is kind of strange, isn't it?'' said quarterback Geno Smith. "That was a good rivalry.''

Indeed, but one of college football's most bitter rivalries has now gone the way of so many others in this age of conference realignment. There was no possibility of keeping it going in the short term when West Virginia moved to the Big 12 and saw its non-conference schedule reduced from five games to three. Pitt, too, has its own scheduling issues with an impending move to the ACC.

Like Pitt's rivalry with Penn State, which died when the Nittany Lions moved to the Big Ten almost 20 years ago, the Backyard Brawl might never be played again.

That doesn't mean the Panthers are out of sight and mind, though.

"I always keep track of them, even though I don't try to,'' Smith said. "I always see them go across the [ESPN crawl at the bottom of the screen] and think, 'What did Pitt do this week?'

"It's tough. Well, it's not tough, but it's different. But we have another tough test ahead of us with Iowa State.''

For those to whom nostalgia is important, Iowa State will never replace Pitt. That's a given. We're talking about a passionately-hated rival in a city an hour up the road as opposed to a generic unknown in the middle of farm country a full day's drive away.

Ah, but for style of play you might not find many teams closer. Iowa State would have fit right into the Big East with its emphasis on defense and toughness and lack of emphasis on flash and style and offense.

"Yeah, they're similar to Pitt,'' Smith said. "They're always scrappy and tough.''

Part of that, of course, has to do with location and history and all that. You just don't get a lot of five-star recruits aching to spend four years in Ames, Iowa, just as you don't find an avalanche of the same yearning for an extended stay in Morgantown.

It might be even tougher in Ames, because at least in Morgantown there's the lure of one of those fast-paced offenses with a young, dynamic coach. At Iowa State, the face of the program is Paul Rhoads, a defensive guy through and through.

"They do have similar-style players,'' Smith said of Iowa State and Pitt. "Those guys at Pitt always played us tough and I know Iowa State will, too.''

Of course, for those bemoaning the loss of a rivalry, there's still something to hang your hat on for the time being.

Rhoads is no newbie to West Virginia. Before arriving at Iowa State in 2009, he spent a year as the defensive coordinator at Auburn, where he lost 31-17 to WVU in Morgantown. The previous eight years he spent at Pitt.

And for much of that time, Rhoads' defenses did not fare well against the Mountaineers. Between 2003 and 2006, the Panthers stood by and watched as West Virginia scored 54, 45 and 45 points in three of the four games.

But then it was Rhoads' defense that inexplicably did a 180, held perhaps the best West Virginia offense ever to just nine points and knocked the Mountaineers out of the national championship game in 2007.

So if you're looking for a link to the past and Pitt games bygone, there it is. It's not much, but these days and in the future, it will probably have to do.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1


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