Surprises and wrinkles likely in play, but slowing Pitt’s ground game crucial for mountaineers

MORGANTOWN, West Virginia — Regardless of the year or the opponent, a season opener comes with an abundance of unknowns before it.

For West Virginia, the 2022 edition comes in the form of the 105th Backyard Brawl, which will be played at 7 p.m. Thursday and will mark the first time the Mountaineers will face Pitt since 2011.

“Everyone is probably going to have their surprises and wrinkles,” West Virginia defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley said. “We just have to be ready for them. I think they might use a little more staff than some people think, but we’ll see. They can not.

That’s for sure: Both teams will have new starting quarterbacks as former USC signallers JT Daniels and Kedon Slovis will be behind West Virginia center and Pitt, respectively.

Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, who came to Morgantown in January after a three-year stint in the same role with the Trojans, has worked with Daniels and Slovis in the past, the latter more extensively while Daniels played at Georgia in 2020 and 2021.

Pitt will also be led by a new offensive coordinator in Frank Cignetti Jr., the son of former WVU head coach Frank Cignetti Sr.

Frank Cignetti Jr.

This is Cignetti’s third stint on Pitt’s team and the veteran offensive mind previously coordinated the Panthers’ offense in 2009 and 2010.

Before returning to Pitt in January as Mark Whipple’s replacement, Cignetti served as the offensive coordinator for two seasons at Boston College. His tenure in British Columbia followed stints with the St. Louis Rams, New York Giants and Green Bay Packers after Cignetti guided the Rutgers offense in 2011.

“They’re going to be multiple,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said. “He’s done a really good job at Boston College the last two years and he’s a longtime player. He’s not going to be shaken. He’s done it at the NFL and college level for a long time.

The opener against a Cigetti-led offense forces WVU staff to study their tendencies in previous stoppages, although the Mountaineers defensive co-ordinator believes it also places more of a burden on his unit to focus on what they do. can control.

“You always go back and try to get as much as you can, but you have to be careful how far down that rabbit hole you go,” Lesley said. You take away the rivalry and it’s still match 1 against someone you have very limited information on in the spring match. We have to worry about ourselves and we have the things we think we should be good at and the things we think we are defensive about. We’ll see where it goes.

“I’m sure there are things about me, like any coordinator, and they have tendencies. You have an idea, but you have to be careful not to chase away the ghosts.

Slovis replaces Kenny Pickett, a Pittsburgh Steelers first-round selection in the 2022 NFL Draft who finished third in voting for the Heisman Trophy last season after leading the Panthers to 11 wins and the Conference championship. the Atlantic coast.

While Slovis has the potential to become one of the best quarterbacks in college football at Pitt, the Mountaineers believe it will be imperative to slow down the Panthers’ running game.

“They’ve been pretty open about what they want to do,” Lesley said. “We know that’s where we need to be at our best on Thursday night.”

Part of that responsibility will fall on nose guard Jordan Jefferson, a 310-pound junior who is set to make his sixth career start in his 31st career game on Thursday. Jefferson has past experience, but will take on his most featured role yet.

For someone considered the strongest player on the team by many within the program, it’s a chance to make a name for himself and get enough attention to create a higher percentage of opportunities for teammates to shine.

“It helped how we can play the rest of the forward having guys who can keep the point,” Lesley said. “I don’t mean pluggers. I hate that term. But big, strong bodies that can really hold their own.

If Pitt finds the success he seeks on the court with what Brown expects will be a rollback-by-committee approach, Slovis’ job becomes easier.

Such was the case a year ago when Maryland rushed for 164 yards in a 30-24 win over West Virginia. While the opposition and an abundance of defensive personnel were different, the Mountaineers gave up 66 and 60 yard touchdown passes, the latter of which virtually sealed the result.

With five new starters in the secondary, the Mountaineers guard can also expect to be challenged.

Lesley, however, thinks the group is up for it and expects them to be able to stay fresh throughout the contest.

“The depth and quality of depth is much better, especially in the secondary,” he said. “It’s something we’ve been talking about since the spring. We have to bring them to the game, see who reacts and how they react and what we have to react to. Then we will know a bit more where we will go with all the personnel and the depth, and we will see how it goes.

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Raymond I. Langston