Backyard Brawl intensity about to rise

April, 14, 2011
4/14/11
11:00
AM ET
New West Virginia offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen coaches from the sidelines and signals in plays to his quarterbacks. When asked recently if he was worried that opponents would try to steal his signs, Holgorsen casually referenced new Pitt coach Todd Graham.

"Ask him," he said. "He's obsessed with it."

When asked about Holgorsen's assertion the following day, Graham seemed surprised. He declined to comment, before adding that all teams look for whatever edges they can find.

As far as controversies go, this one is relatively minor. But it illustrates how a rivalry in which there's already plenty of fire might be about to ignite.

Holgorsen -- who will take over as West Virginia head coach following this season -- and Graham have a brief but heated history. Holgorsen was the offensive coordinator at Houston in 2009 when his Cougars beat Graham's Tulsa team 46-45. Afterward, Holgorsen accused Graham of "cheating" by having his players fake injuries in the fourth quarter to slow Houston's offense. Each coach could be seen yelling at the other from across the sidelines during the game.

Graham denied the cheating charge, but you couldn't blame him for hoping to throw any kind of road block in front of Holgorsen's offense. The year before, Houston beat Tulsa 70-30. Last year, when Holgorsen was at Oklahoma State, his Cowboys beat Tulsa 65-28.

That's not all. Graham is one of five Pitt coaches who worked at West Virginia under Rich Rodriguez. The others are offensive coordinator Calvin Magee, tight ends coach Tony Dews, defensive line coach/co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph and cornerbacks coach Tony Gibson. They will get an interesting reception when Pitt plays in Morgantown this season, and the two staffs are likely to clash over recruits since they are both playing high-tempo, spread-it-out offensive styles.

Speaking of offense, that's another reason this rivalry should only grow in intensity. In recent years, the Backyard Brawl has been a slugfest befitting of the blue-collar nature of the region. Witness the scores from 2007-09: 13-9 Pitt, 19-15 Pitt, 19-16 West Virginia. The two teams could equal those point totals now in a quarter. Holgorsen's Oklahoma State team finished third nationally in scoring last year, while Graham's Tulsa was sixth. Tulsa was second in that category in 2008, while Houston ranked 10th.

Those styles lend themselves to memorable shootouts and the ultimate rivalry rabble-rouser: running up the score.

Holgorsen cut his teeth in coaching under free spirits Hal Mumme and Mike Leach and is not afraid to speak his mind or tweak an opponent. Graham's approach appears aimed at avoiding any controversy.

Good luck with that. The Backyard Brawl should be full of intriguing twists and turns in the near future.

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