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Notebook: Mountaineers hoping ‘pressurized’ situations pay dividends at Pitt

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — For the second consecutive year, West Virginia opens its season away from home against a regional rival from a Power 5 Conference.

Next Thursday’s renewal of the Backyard Brawl at Pitt will mark 362 days since the Mountaineers faltered in the second half of a 31-24 setback at Maryland to start the 2021 season.

However, unlike last season, West Virginia is breaking in a new offensive coordinator and new starting quarterback against the Panthers, not to mention a different starting running back and mike linebacker, along with four players in the secondary in their first year at WVU or that weren’t impact players a year ago.

“It makes it more difficult when you open up against a really good opponent, and the fact that it’s a rivalry game too, so there’s going to be a lot of emotion in it,” West Virginia head coach Neal Brown said. “It’s going to be a really big moment. [ESPN’s] College GameDay is there. It’s nationally televised. So there’s a little bit more into this game than your normal opener.”

That this marks the first Backyard Brawl since 2011 and Pitt is ranked in the top 20 of both major national polls as it comes off a season in which it won the Atlantic Coast Conference only adds significance to a game that was announced as a sellout three weeks ago.

Brown admits he doesn’t have a magic formula to ensure his team is prepared to play at or near its desired level.

There are, however, factors he values leading up to his first matchup with Pitt.

“You’re never going to mimic the atmosphere that’s going to be there on Thursday night,” Brown said. “You try to create as much pressure as you possibly can to see these guys that are on the fence. Are they ready for the moment or are they not? You try to create some real pressurized situations in front of their teammates to see if they’re going to perform or not. It’s an inexact science.“

Without facing anybody but teammates throughout the preseason, Brown believes it’s nothing more than a guessing game as to what exactly a team’s strengths and weaknesses are.

“You’re rolling out there and you’ve played against yourselves, so if you’re doing well on one side, you don’t know if you’re good or the other side is bad,” Brown said. “You don’t really know until you get in the first quarter or so of action. It makes it more difficult. It’s a harder deal and to the point, we’ve tried to create more pressurized situations to see if guys that have transferred, are unproven at this level, incoming freshmen or guys that maybe redshirted last year and didn’t have the pressure on them show that they’re ready to build that trust with their staff and teammates.”

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While Brown wasn’t ready to name a starting quarterback earlier this week, he said he would ahead of his fourth season leading the Mountaineers.

That won’t come until after Pitt announced its starting signal caller, with the Panthers declaring Kedon Slovis their quarterback on Wednesday.

Kedon Slovis was named Pitt’s starting quarterback for the September 1 season opener against West Virginia. Photo courtesy of Pitt Athletics

Slovis spent each of his first three seasons at USC, working with current WVU offensive coordinator Graham Harrell.

Both Slovis and Harrell found new homes in January, and a duo that worked together as Slovis threw for 7,576 yards and 58 touchdowns in his time as a Trojan will be on opposing sidelines in the first game at their respective programs.

It’s possible, and many would say even likely, that Slovis’ former USC teammate is named the Mountaineers’ starting quarterback.

Back in 2019, JT Daniels endured a season-ending knee injury that opened the door for Slovis to throw for 3,502 yards en route to being named the Pac 12’s Offensive Freshman of the Year.

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Slovis will be under the guidance of Frank Cignetti Jr., who has returned to Pitt as offensive coordinator.

Cignetti was previously the Panthers’ offensive coordinator in the 2009 and 2010 seasons, before holding that title at Rutgers, and then moving on to coach with the then-St. Louis Rams, New York Giants and Green Bay Packers.

After two years as Boston College’s offensive coordinator, the son of former WVU head coach Frank Cignetti Sr. returned to Pitt to take over for Mark Whipple, who is now at Nebraska after three seasons as Pitt’s offensive coordinator.

“They were really good offensively last year,” Brown said. “You have to study that even though Whip went to Nebraska. Outside of the receivers coach, the rest of the offensive staff is there. They played really well on the offensive line. You have to really study what they did, because coach Cignetti has been doing it for a long time. He’s been really successful and most really good coaches are going to look at what you did well previously and try to keep those things. We have to study that and what he’s done at Boston College.

“Then you look at what the quarterback has done well, too. Graham has a decent feel for that because he coached him.”

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