- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Pittsburgh has a mulligan left.
The No. 9 Panthers don't need to win Friday night at West Virginia in order to bring home a Big East title or BCS bid. All they have to do for that is beat Cincinnati on Dec. 5.
Of course, there's a big difference between need and want. The Backyard Brawl may not have much bearing on Pitt's ultimate goals, but you better believe this is a fight the team does not want to lose.
"We're not looking at it at all like we can still lose this game and beat Cincinnati for the Big East," center Robb Houser said. "We're not even looking at Cincinnati right now because [West Virginia] is a good team and it's a big rivalry. We're focusing on getting these last two games, not what we need for the Big East. We're focusing on winning out."
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said earlier this week that his biggest fear wasn't that his players would look past West Virginia. It was that they would look past all the work in practice to get to Friday's game.
"There’s always a fine line when playing West Virginia," Wannstedt said. "It’s a very exciting game for our players. It’s a very emotional game for our players. You also have to be able to understand that the quickest way to be defeated is to be distracted. So you have to go down there and play with a lot of emotion and energy, but at the same time you have to really be focused on the job at hand."
The Panthers have excelled at that the past two years. Arguably the biggest win in the Wannstedt era came in Morgantown two years ago, when Pitt upset West Virginia, 13-9. Wannstedt's team had only four wins going into that game, while the Mountaineers were making plans for the BCS title game. Since that game, Pitt has won 18 of its last 23 contests.
"I think that win, when you look back on it, it gave us life," Wannstedt said. "By that, I mean we had so many recruits that were right on the bubble. It gave us an opportunity to get one more shot at these guys and to say that it will happen and to believe in us.
"You know if you lose that game and come off of a four-win season and go into your offseason program, that’s a challenge, from a coaching standpoint and from a player standpoint. Winning that game, I can remember the first day of the offseason program in January. We had as much enthusiasm from a team standpoint to get started and to try to build on that for the next year as any."
Wannstedt said he remembers seeing recruits lined up on the sideline during pregame warm-ups for that 2007 game. Many of the players were being courted by both schools.
"Within 10 to 14 days [after the win], we got eight commitments," he said. "Two or three of those kids were right there [in Morgantown]."
No doubt that win got Pitt's program jump-started in a lot of ways. Now it's really revved up, with a top-10 ranking, a shot at the Big East title and, of course, a two-game Backyard Brawl winning streak. The Panthers don't want to give any of that back.
"We ruined their chances of a national championship last time we were there, so they're going to be ready for us," tight end Dorin Dickerson said. "This rivalry means a lot and has been good for a lot of years. We want to have the upper hand every year."