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Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Could this be final Backyard Brawl?

By Andrea Adelson

Todd Graham and Dana Holgorsen
Todd Graham and Dana Holgorsen will be coaching in their first (and perhaps only) Backyard Brawl.
West Virginia and Pitt have played 103 times, developing their heated rivalry into one of the biggest, most intense games in college football.

But perhaps more than some of the juicy storylines going into their game Friday night in Morgantown, the question that has dominated this week has been whether this rivalry can be saved.

Both teams are headed for different conference homes, and that might make it difficult to keep this game on the schedule on a yearly basis. Nearly everybody associated with both programs, from coaches Todd Graham and Dana Holgorsen, to the players and fans, wants to see the Backyard Brawl live on.

Yet nobody knows what their new conference schedules will bring them or what their nonconference game philosophies will be moving forward. West Virginia is set to play nine conference games in the Big 12, further complicating efforts. There is the hope the schools will be able to work out an agreement to preserve the history and the tradition of this game, but for now we are left to wonder.

That has not been lost on the schools, either. Pitt defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said the coaches have indicated this could be the final game.

"I think that’s a tragedy if it ends," Alecxih said in a phone interview. "It’s one of the oldest rivalries in college football, one of the most intense. I think it’s a shame. ... I don't want to say this is a big thing we're thinking about, but if this were to be the last time we played on a consistent basis, it would be great to say we won it."

It is obvious there is no love lost between these two schools. Back in August at Big East media day, the contingents of players from the two schools avoided each other at the clambake and media session. West Virginia defensive end Bruce Irvin said this when asked how he felt about Pitt: "You aren't supposed to hate anybody, but I think that's as close to hate you can get, that rivalry. We don't speak to them, and they don't speak to us."

There have been plenty of recent upsets, which have lent unpredictability to this game. This year, there are conference implications on the line, as both teams still have a chance to make it to a BCS game. Plus, there is the compelling storyline of Holgorsen versus Graham, two coaches in their first seasons as head coaches in the Brawl.

The last Backyard Brawl that featured two new head coaches was in 1966, when Pitt's Dave Hart faced West Virginia's Jim Carlen. The host Panthers won 17-14, for Pitt's only victory that season. Five of the previous seven new coaches at Pitt have defeated West Virginia in their first Brawl. The only ones who didn't were Dave Wannstedt (2005) and Paul Hackett (1990).

Holgorsen and Graham have a history against each other, dating back to their Conference USA days. Things flared between them for the first time in 2009. Graham was the head coach at Tulsa, and Holgorsen was the offensive coordinator at Houston. After the Cougars won 46-45, Holgorsen accused Tulsa of faking injuries to slow down the Houston attack.

Then last season, with Holgorsen as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, the Cowboys beat Tulsa 65-28, rolled up 722 yards of offense and kept throwing the ball late with the game out of reach.

The two said all the right things about one another this week when asked to describe their relationship.

“There's always a tremendous amount of respect when it comes to coaching against each other," Holgorsen said. "Bad blood may exist with guys that work with each other, but I can't say I’ve had any negative situations with coach Graham to the point where I wouldn't consider him a friend."

That might be going further than some players involved in the game.

"A lot of guys take this game to heart," Pitt offensive lineman Jordan Gibbs said. "I wouldn’t say it’s hate, but I know they dislike us. We can’t be worried about them. We just have to go out and play our best game."