When Dave Wannstedt first came to the Big East, West Virginia was an offensive powerhouse. Now, the focus - or at the least the strength - of the Mountaineers is on the other side of the ball.
"You look at the statistics, and they're playing as good as anyone in the nation and not just in one category," Wannstedt said at his weekly press conference on Monday. "They are playing very well as a unit, they're not giving up many big plays, and they've got some experience and guys who have been in the system for a couple years, which I think helps them."
To wit, WVU ranks fourth nationally in total defense (245.1 yards per game), fourth nationally in scoring defense (12.9 points per game), fourth nationally in rush defense (88.0 rushing yards per game), fifth nationally in sacks (3.2 per game), eighth nationally in pass defense (157.1 passing yards per game), and ninth nationally in pass efficiency defense.
The Mountaineers are No. 1 in the Big East in all six of those categories as well.
"They're very disciplined," Wannstedt said. "As reckless as they play, they've got good athletes and they know the system. It's nothing new for them, and they play within the system. And they don't make many mistakes."
The other side
West Virginia is a defensive powerhouse this season, but Wannstedt was quick to caution that Pitt's defense shouldn't overlook the Mountaineers' offense.
"The players and talent that they have on offense, with (Jock) Sanders and (Noel) Devine and (Tavon) Austin and the quarterback (Geno Smith), they are capable, any time, of busting the game wide open. Because of their athletic ability, they present some problems, obviously. Our defense is going to have to step up."
Pitt junior cornerback Antwuan Reed was flagged for a probable-record of four pass interference penalties at South Florida on Saturday.
"We've watched the tape, we've addressed it," Wannstedt said. "Usually the biggest mistake is a guy not looking back for the ball; he was looking back for the ball, but they want to see hands. They want to see 'four hands in the air,' is the expression the officials use. When one hand gets caught [low], they're going to call it."
Wannstedt added that Pitt will have officials at practice on Tuesday and pass interference penalties will be a focus. He also said he was impressed with Reed's resiliency in the game; after taking the four flags - including one on South Florida's final drive - the junior from Johnstown iced the game with an interception.
"That could have been, 'Get in the car and drive home back to Johnstown.' The thing that I will give him credit for, because it was such a high intensity game, particularly at the end, for him to just keep fighting through it…and for him to keep competing and competing, and then he ends up getting the interception at the end to end it."
Other than the penalties, I was very pleased with how our defense played overall. I thought they played with a lot of 86 plays in the game. And most of those were extra plays; when you get a penalty and they get an automatic first down, you're going to have extra plays. Not only does it stress the defense, but it takes away opportunities for the offense.
That was probably the only thing that really bothered me from a defensive standpoint.
A rite of fall
In what has become a November tradition in Pittsburgh, players who take the field at Heinz Field have also taken to complaining about the conditions of the turf late in the season. Between Pitt and the Pittsburgh Steelers, the natural grass surface is often in poor shape by this point in the fall, and it was on full display during Sunday's Steelers-Raiders game. Wannstedt said he's not too concerned about that, though.
"Last time we were there, it wasn't bad. It has some wear and tear, obviously, but we line up and play. I wouldn't even comment at this point, to be quite honest with you. Whatever the conditions are, both teams have to play on it."
Keeping it in the teens
In the last three Pitt-West Virginia games, the final scores have been 13-9 (2007), 19-15 (2008), and 19-16 (2009). Suffice to say, the Panthers and Mountaineers haven't put up many points against each other recently, but Wannstedt is banking on that happening again.
Or, at least, he's not ruling out the possibility of seeing a lot of points this Friday.
"Whether it will be low scoring, I don't even go there because both offenses have enough explosive players that the minute you start thinking that or say that, it goes the other way. It will be a game where every play will count, without a doubt, for four quarters. It's going to be fun."
Pitt has played three Thursday night games this season, so the team knows how to prepare for those weeks. Now the Panthers have to gear up for a Friday game with their shortest break of the season. Wannstedt said the coaches will adjust accordingly.
"(Monday) will be a Tuesday for us. We've moved everything up one day. We won't have as much contact as we normally would have. We'll go out in shells (on Monday). It will be a full practice, everything will be full speed; we'll just back off the contact a little bit. And at this point in the season, you can do that."
Pitt's only turnover against South Florida came in the third quarter when Nate Nix lost control of the ball after recovering a blocked punt. The officials ruled that Nix gained possession and then lost it; South Florida recovered. In college football, a replay official reviews every play; if the official observes an error, he can call for a challenge. A coach can also request a review.
"I was talking to the official the whole time. It was being reviewed, and they were taking their time on the field; they waited as long as they could to make darn sure that the guy upstairs had a good look at it. If a challenge meant that a referee was going to come over and look at a TV and there was going to be a discussion about it, then you're more apt to challenge it. But if there's one guy upstairs and he says, 'That's not how I see it,' it's tough with the challenge to overcome that.
"If they're going right to the line of scrimmage and they're not waiting for it to be reviewed, then you have to challenge it and use a timeout. But I was standing there with an official and he said they were looking at it.
"You could (challenge), but the same guy is looking at it. I don't know if he's going to change his mind."
Quote of the day
"[This week's game] will probably come down to, not necessarily the team that makes the most big plays, but the team that makes the fewest amount of bad plays." - Dave Wannstedt