PITTSBURGH – Three days before Pitt and West Virginia renew the Backyard Brawl for the first time in 11 years, the buzz is a bit different in the Pitt locker room than it has been ahead of past opening games.
Coach Pat Narduzzi says playing a historical rival for the 105th time is a tad more exciting than opening against Massachusetts or Austin Peay, the two most recent opening-game opponents for the No. 17 Panthers.
“There’s no question about it,” Narduzzi said at his Monday press conference. “Everybody likes a little bit of a warm-up game just to get going, but I think it’s better to have a game like this to be opening up with, I believe, just because your kids are cranked up for it. I think it helps in the preparation. The guys aren’t sitting there going, ‘Oh, yeah, we only have UMass.’ Then you glide through camp. I think there’s been a lot of juice through camp.”
Something that should juice up Pitt fans ahead of Thursday night’s game is the return of former Pitt player and coach Dave Wannstedt. Wannstedt was Pitt’s coach from 2005-10 and was the man in charge when the Panthers upset No. 2 West Virginia 13-9 in 2007, ending the Mountaineers’ national championship hopes.
“Our honorary captain, I couldn’t be more excited, Dave Wannstedt,” Narduzzi said. “He’s coming back at Acrisure Stadium and I’m excited to have him here. One of my real idols. I’m not talking about because I’m the Pitt head coach, but he’s a guy that I’ve always, always looked up to.
“It means the world, really. He’s a Pitt man. He’s a busy man as well as a Pitt man. For him to take time out of his schedule, we’re excited. It means everything really.”
Since this is the first time Narduzzi and his players are experiencing the Backyard Brawl, the coach thinks Wannstedt could provide the team with invaluable insight into the rivalry.
“I think you have to understand where it’s coming from,” Narduzzi said. “They hear from other people. I can tell you this, when you have to educate, you try to bring in guest speakers. Bring in the best guest speaker you can. Going to try to educate them with Dave Wannstedt and anybody else we can.”
The first depth chart of the season was also released on Monday. Junior Bangally Kamara is listed as the starter at “star” linebacker, while Notre Dame transfer Shayne Simon is listed as the starting “money” linebacker. Senior A.J. Woods got the nod at starting corner opposite of Marquis Williams.
Also of note, the 2021 season’s leading rusher, Israel Abanikanda, was listed as the lone starting running back. Tailback has been a position where Narduzzi has been non-committal, often having an “or” listed between players’ names.
“He’s been really steady, so we’ll find out,” Narduzzi said of Abanikanda. “Again, doesn’t have an ‘or’ right now. I didn’t forget. He came out of fall camp looking really good.”
Despite giving Abanikanda a vote of confidence right now, Narduzzi mentioned that the team has good depth at the position, and it will all come down to in-game performances.
“We’re going to find out on game day,” Narduzzi said. “They can look talented against our defense in a drill period, but for me, it’s Thursday (night). We’re going to find out who is that guy. We feel comfortable with all those guys in the backfield that not only can they make yards after contact, they can also protect the quarterback.”
While Narduzzi was pleased with his team’s performance during training camp, he says none of that matters because his team’s success will be determined in stadiums, beginning under the lights on Thursday night.
“You can have a great camp,” Narduzzi said. “We finished a great camp last Friday, but it comes down to what are you going to do on September 1st. That’s what it comes down to. What you did in preseason, how camp went, practice went, scrimmaging here and there, it doesn’t really matter. Thursday will be the first opportunity we find out what we have.”