PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pat Narduzzi’s memories of “The Backyard Brawl” are hazy at best. Growing up in nearby Youngstown, Ohio, Narduzzi remembers catching the annual meeting between Pittsburgh and West Virginia on TV every year, but not much else.
“I wish I could tell you a lot of things back then,” Narduzzi said with a laugh.
Narduzzi’s vantage point will be far different Thursday night when his eighth season coaching the Panthers begins with an indoctrination into a blood feud between two schools separated by 75 miles of foothills and 127 years of animosity.
After a decade hiatus, the Brawl is back in all of its “ Country Roads ” vs. “ Sweet Caroline ” and pepperoni rolls vs. Primanti’s glory.
“There’s a lot of hatred on their end, but going to be a lot of hate on our end,” Narduzzi said. “That’s what it comes down to in rivalry games.”
The two teams haven’t met since 2011, with the series derailed by the ever-shifting tectonic plates of major college football. West Virginia bailed on the now-defunct Big East the following year for the Big 12. Pitt followed suit a year later to join the ACC.
They’ve spent the last 10 years warily eyeing each other from afar. The build-up to the series’ return has included former players and coaches on both sides serving as history professors of sorts.
“I’ve been waiting for this game my whole life,” said West Virginia defensive lineman Dante Stills, whose father, Gary, played linebacker for the Mountaineers in the 1990s.
The same could be said, in a way, for West Virginia coach Neal Brown. The program is still searching for traction as he enters his fourth year. Taking down the defending ACC champions on the road could be an impactful step in the right direction.
Not that Brown is ready to talk about the big picture. For Brown and the rest of his staff, there are too many little pictures to worry about. Chief among them making sure the Mountaineers don’t get so caught up in the hype they forget to do their jobs.
“In a first game, especially a first game when you have a rivalry game that’s coming back for the first time in however long it’s been, over 10 years, there’s going to be a lot of emotions,” said first-year offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. “The key is going to be to not beat yourself in those situations regardless of who you’re playing. Don’t let the emotions get the most of you.”
Good luck with that.
Narduzzi has made it a point to try and get his players to turn the page from their breakout 2021, when they won 11 games for the first time since 1981 behind the play of quarterback Kenny Pickett. The calendar has flipped. Pickett is next door with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the 2022 version of the Panthers are, at least at the moment, a mystery to even their coach.
“We studied for eight months for this test, we’re going to take the test,” Narduzzi said. “The test is Thursday night. So you find out I think at that point where you are.”
Southern California transfer Kedon Slovis beat out Nick Patti during training camp for the right to take over for Pickett, a Heisman Trophy finalist a season ago.
Slovis is no stranger the spotlight. It tends to come with the territory when suiting up for the Trojans. While Narduzzi stressed it was Slovis’ accuracy that gave him the upper hand over Patti, the fact Slovis is unlikely to be fazed by the stage and the stakes isn’t a bad thing either.
“I love playing in big games,” said Slovis, who threw for 58 touchdowns in 27 games at USC. “I think every player loves playing in big games. You know, from your high school rival to college, you know, I think everyone’s favorite games are rivalry games. So yeah, you know, obviously you feel prepared, but more so I just feel excited.”
Slovis isn’t the only former Trojan quarterback who will be on the field. JT Daniels actually started 11 games for USC in 2018 before getting injured at the start of 2019, a setback that happened to open the door for Slovis.
Three years and two schools later, Daniels will start for West Virginia following two seasons at Georgia.
Like Slovis, Daniels is hoping to regain some of the swagger he showed early in his career. Unlike Slovis, Daniels will have to deal with a defense that has become one of the most aggressive in the country under Narduzzi. The Panthers have rolled up 151 sacks over the last three years, more than any other program in the FBS.
“That’s the standard here,” Pitt defensive lineman Calijah Kancey said. “The standard is sacks (and) tackles for loss. The standard here is to live in the backfield.”
AP Sports Writer John Raby in Morgantown, West Virginia, contributed to this report.
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